Michael Morton prison release ahead, Wilco murder investigation continues (TX)


Through nearly 25 years in jail, Michael Morton maintained his innocence in the beating death of his wife, Christine.  And now, “powerful” evidence revealed last week has finally brought the Williamson County District Attorney’s office to a point of agreement with Morton’s defense team that the murder conviction should be set aside.  A jointly-written findings of fact submission must be approved by the Court of Criminal Appeals, but pending that ruling, Morton is set to be released upon conclusion of a bond hearing either Tuesday or Wednesday.

The road to this day has been long and agonizing, but perseverance has finally paid off.  Within weeks of Morton’s 1987 conviction, a new trial was requested based on reports of Williamson County Assistant District Attorney Mike Davis describing to jurors after the trial that if the defense had received all of the investigator’s reports, they (the defense) could have raised more reasonable doubt.  That motion along with a series of appeals were unsuccessful, but attracted the attention of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, and new efforts on Morton’s behalf began.

Morton’s Innocence Project legal team spent six years fighting to access evidence believed suppressed at trial.  Upon a 2008 ruling in which the state Attorney General’s office – over the objection of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley -  ordered files requested in a Public Information Act to be released, the defense team received a transcripts of an interview conducted with Christine’s mother less than two weeks after the murder which describes a conversation with the couple’s three-year-old son who told of witnessing an unknown man murder his mother.

Additional information received included reports of a green van and suspicious occupant on the street behind the Morton’s address as well as investigators apparent failure to pursue leads related to one of Christine Morton’s missing credit cards being used two days after her murder and one of her checks cashed nine days later.

A battle over DNA testing on a key piece of evidence – the evidence that now serves as the basis for Morton’s exoneration – was another prolonged ordeal pitting Morton’s legal team against the Bradley.  A stained bandanna was collected the day following the murder about 100 yards from the crime scene.  After years of litigation due to repeated objections from Bradley, the Texas Court of Appeals finally last year granted testing on the bandanna.

A report issued in June identified Christine Morton’s blood and hair on the bandanna intermingled with DNA belonging to a man other than Michael.  Per Morton attorney John Raley, the DNA has been matched to a man with a state and federal felony record for offenses in three states that include burglary of a residence, “extensive” drug use and assault with intent to kill.  Last week’s “bombshell” court revelation is that this same DNA has now been linked to a 1988 unsolved Travis County murder in which another woman, similarly to Christine Morton, was bludgeoned to death in her bed.

In a post-hearing news conference, Innocence Project team members termed this case as “extraordinary” and “not over yet” as investigations would be ongoing.  Attorney John Raley discussed the need for “discovery” reform (with regard to evidence) across the country and termed the Morton case a “dramatic example.”

Attorney Nina Morrison described the “extraordinary amount of credible, specific, corroborated, non-DNA evidence in the record – an eye-witness account of the murder by this third party – that was never turned over to the defense and which that jury has to be looking at these events in horror and disbelief 25 years later  – that they never got to hear and evaluate.”  She continued that leads not followed up on were another tragedy of the case and again reiterated that investigations would continue.  The Innocence Project has posted several key case filings which provide greater detail on the evidence supporting Morton’s innocence.

In addition to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, another portion of the Innocence Project’s mission is reform of the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.  From discovery issues to evidence testing resistance to district attorney open records provisions, the Morton case seems to provide much fodder for criminal justice reform.

A recent column Will Morton case show Williamson County ‘tough on crime’ or ‘light on justice’? discussed a pattern of conduct exhibited by Williamson County officials both in the 80s and in recent years, a pattern that fosters a sense of disregard for both the law and the pursuit of justice.  From that standpoint and based on the totality of Michael Morton’s experience, “light on justice” still seems to have the edge.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity Foundation – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.