On August 12, 1986, Morton celebrated his birthday at a restaurant with his wife Christine and their three-year-old son. The following morning, he left a note for his wife expressing disappointment that she wasn’t intimate with him the night before. Nonetheless, he ended the note saying “I love you” and left for work at about 5.30 am. Christine’s body would be found in their bed later that morning — bludgeoned to death with a wooden weapon on a sheet stained with semen. About 100 yards from the Morton home, investigators recovered a bloody bandana from a construction site the day after Christine’s body was found.
During interrogation, Christine’s mother told authorities that the Mortons’ son Eric had witnessed the murder in front of his own eyes. He told his grandmother that the murderer was a “monster” and specifically mentioned that his “Daddy was not home when it happened. Eric was able to describe the crime scene and murder in detail. Police were told by neighbors that a man would often park a green van on the street behind Morton’s house and disappear into a nearby wooded area. Meanwhile, Christine’s missing credit card was recovered at a jewelry store in San Antonio and an officer was confident he could identify the woman who had tried to use the card. Shockingly, as it would later emerge, none of this information was turned over to Morton’s defense lawyers during his trial.
The defense soon began to suspect that the prosecution might be holding back potentially exculpatory evidence, especially after learning they were not calling Sergeant Don Woods, the chief investigator in the case, to the stand. But despite a judge ordering the prosecution to turn over all investigative reports for a thorough review, they did not share with the judge evidence regarding Eric’s account, the green van, as well as Christine Morton’s credit card.
The prosecution, without any witnesses or physical evidence, hypothesized that Morton had beaten his wife to death because she refused him sex on his birthday. As fate would have it, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on February 17, 1987.
Almost two decades later, in 2005, the Innocence Project joined hands with law firm Raley & Bowick to file a motion requesting additional DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. Once again, the court granted permission to test only some of the items — excluding the bloody bandana recovered near the Mortons’ residence. It took five more years for the courts to finally grant Morton’s lawyers testing on the bandana and hair from the bandana. It was found that it contained both Christine Morton’s DNA and the DNA of an unknown male.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley “tenaciously fought” against DNA testing for six years before a judge finally ordered the tests
After running samples through the police database, the unknown DNA profile matched that of Mark Norwood, a convicted felon who had a criminal record in Texas and was living there at the time of Christine’s murder. Further into the probe, investigators found that Norwood’s DNA was also found at another crime scene. Debra Masters Baker was bludgeoned to death at her Travis County residence two years after Christine’s death. By then, Michael was already in prison.
The wrongfully convicted father faced terrible hardships in prison. He admitted he would often, in his head, plot the murder of those who put him behind bars and it took years before he finally came to terms with his situation. His son, after a point, wrote to him that he wouldn’t be visiting him anymore in prison — further breaking Michael’s spirit.
Fortunately, the new evidence meant Michael Morton was not responsible for his wife’s murder. He was finally released from prison on October 4, 2011, after spending nearly 25 years in prison, and officially exonerated on December 19, 2011.
“I’ve been out about five months now,” Morton was later quoted as saying. “I came out of the gym the other morning, and the sun was just over the horizon and there was orange and purple and a little bit of a breeze that was drying the perspiration on my forehead and it felt so good. I’ve been going to restaurants looking for things I have never eaten. I had crabmeat manicotti recently. It was delicious. My bad days are good.” Following his release, Morton moved in with his parents in Liberty City, Texas. He married Cynthia May Chessman, who attended the same church as Morton since his exoneration, in March 2013. The duo lives a happy and peaceful life in Texas.
During the post-conviction DNA litigation, Morton’s lawyers obtained the other documents that had been withheld at trial. The Texas Supreme Court subsequently ordered an unprecedented Court of Inquiry into Ken Anderson, the former prosecutor who withheld exculpatory information, to see if he was guilty of misconduct. It was found that there was probable cause to believe that Anderson, who went on to become a judge, had violated criminal laws by concealing evidence. He was then charged with criminal contempt and tampering with evidence, with the State Bar of Texas introducing additional ethics charges.
Conviction of prosecutor Ken Anderson
On November 16, 2011, Morton’s original prosecutor, Ken Anderson, told reporters: “I want to formally apologize for the system’s failure to Mr. Morton. In hindsight, the verdict was wrong.” Baker’s daughter said she was unmoved by Anderson’s apology and held him partially responsible for her mother’s death because he and investigators allowed a killer to escape detection by focusing so intently on Morton. “It is harder for me to hear him not holding himself accountable. He is not taking responsibility,” she said.
The same day as Morton’s formal acquittal, Morton’s attorneys (including Raley, Morrison, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and Gerald Goldstein and Cynthia Orr of San Antonio) asked Harle to order a “court of inquiry” into the actions of Anderson, who was then a district judge in Williamson County. A court of inquiry is a special court that investigates allegations of misconduct by elected officials in Texas. Morton had accused Anderson of failing to provide defense lawyers with exculpatory evidence indicating that another man might have killed Morton’s wife, including information that his 3-year-old son witnessed the murder and said that his father was not home at the time. Morton’s attorneys discovered this evidence while preparing a final appeal, and were able to get Anderson and others involved in the investigation deposed under oath.
On February 20, 2012, Harle asked the Texas Supreme Court to convene a court of inquiry, finding that there was evidence to support Morton’s contention that Anderson had tampered with evidence and should have been held in contempt of court for not complying with the trial judge’s order to let him review all possible exculpatory evidence. The court of inquiry began on February 4, 2013. On April 19, 2013, the court of inquiry ordered Anderson to be arrested, saying “This court cannot think of a more intentionally harmful act than a prosecutor’s conscious choice to hide mitigating evidence so as to create an uneven playing field for a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence.” Anderson responded by claiming immunity from any prosecution under the expiry of applicable statutes of limitation. On September 23, 2013, Anderson resigned from his position as district court judge.
On November 8, 2013, Anderson was found to be in contempt of court by 9th Judicial District Judge Kelly Moore. Anderson pled no contest to the charges as part of a plea bargain. He was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, and was ordered to report to jail no later than December 2, 2013. He received credit for one day he spent in jail in April 2013, when he was arrested following the court of inquiry. He was also fined $500, and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service. He agreed to give up his license to practice law in exchange for having the charges of evidence tampering dropped. He will be eligible to apply to have his law license reinstated after five years. On November 15, 2013, Anderson was released from jail after having served five days of his 10-day sentence; he was released early after receiving credit for good behavior.
After the plea agreement was announced, it was publicly revealed that Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty agreed to authorize an independent review of every case that Anderson ever prosecuted, along with every case in which Bradley successfully opposed DNA testing.
The Michael Morton Act
On May 16, 2013, Governor of Texas Rick Perry signed Texas Senate Bill 1611, also called the Michael Morton Act, into law. The Act is designed to ensure a more open discovery process. The bill’s open file policy removes barriers for accessing evidence. Morton was present for the signing of the bill, which became law on September 1, 2013