Imagine learning that your spouse had been brutally murdered as she lay in bed, then being convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Imagine spending the next 25 years locked away in prison, losing touch with your only child… and all the time knowing that you were entirely innocent.
This isn’t the stuff of a bestselling novel or a Hollywood film, but the real-life experience of Michael Morton, whose nightmare ordeal finally came to an end on October 4th, 2011.
It was the afternoon of August 13th, 1986, when a concerned neighbour discovered the body of 31-year-old Christine Morton. She had been beaten to death in bed in the home near Austin, Texas, which she shared with her husband, Michael, and their three-year-old son. The first that Michael – who had turned 32 the previous day – knew of it was when he tried to call his wife of seven years from the grocery store which he managed.
Instead he found himself talking to the Sheriff, who told him to come home. When he got there in a state of panic, he found a scene that would change his life. Six weeks later Michael (pictured), who had no criminal record and no history of violence, was arrested for his wife’s murder. No witnesses or physical evidence linked him to the crime and from the outset he maintained that he had left his wife sleeping as he headed out to work at 5-30am, and that an intruder must have killed her some time after that.
But the police had found a note he left for his wife setting out his unhappiness at the way his birthday celebration the evening before had turned out. After a meal out together, he had hoped they would return home and make love, but his wife had eaten too much and fallen asleep, leaving him feeling unwanted. In the note he asked how she would have felt if the roles were reversed, but ended with “I.L.Y.” for I Love You before signing his initial.
On the flimsy evidence of the note, Michael was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life behind bars. Having already lost his wife, he was determined not to lose his son and eventually won the right for the boy to visit him for two hours once every six months. Custody of the boy was given to his wife’s younger sister, who had come to believe that Michael must be guilty.
As the boy grew older the visits became painfully difficult. He could not remember his father at home and Michael came to believe he had been turned against him by his wife’s family. Eventually, when the boy was 15 he refused to go to the prison again.
Luckily, Michael’s legal team did believe in him, and it was advances in forensic evidence that would ultimately prove his innocence. In 2005 his lawyers petitioned the State of Texas to carry out DNA tests on items including a bloodstained bandana found by police on an abandoned construction site close to the Morton house the day after the murder. The District Attorney successfully blocked all requests until 2010 when an appeal court finally ordered the tests to be carried out.
In the summer of 2011 the tests revealed the bandana contained Christine Morton’s blood and hair, together with the DNA of another man, Mark Alan Norwood. He was a known felon with a long criminal record who worked in the Austin area as a carpet fitter at the time of the murder.
After almost 25 years behind bars, Michael Morton was released from prison eight years ago today, on October 4th, 2011, and officially exonerated two months later. A month after his release, 57-year-old Norwood was found and arrested for Christine Morton’s murder, convicted of the crime in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Based on DNA evidence he was also charged with the unsolved murder of a second woman, found bludgeoned to death in her bed in Austin in 1988. He was subsequently convicted of that murder too.
Remarkably, Michael was eventually able to forgive all those who worked towards his wrongful conviction, saying in his autobiography, published in 2014, that forgiveness was the only way he could find inner peace. Even so, his case highlighted serious and substantial failings in his prosecution. It has since led to a new law, called the “Michael Morton Act”, designed to make it easier for defence lawyers to have much greater access to evidence against their client.
The prosecutor in his case was indicted for allegedly withholding from Morton’s defence team key evidence which would have cast serious doubt on his guilt. Among the items was a taped interview between Morton’s mother-in-law and the lead investigator in the case. She told how the couple’s three-year-old son had told her in detail about witnessing his mother’s murder, saying his father was not home at the time and it was another man, who he called “a monster”.
The prosecutor, Ken Anderson, who had since become a Texas district judge, agreed a deal to settle the charges against him. It saw him give up his law license, perform 500 hours of community service, pay a $500 fine and serve 10 days in jail. He was released after five days, for good behaviour.
Michael Morton was awarded compensation for the 25 years he spent in jail and has since remarried and been reconciled with his now adult son.