This is from CNN: Imagine being out to dinner with the love of your
life and your beautiful, smiling, 3-year-old child. It’s a double
celebration: your birthday and the end of your young boy’s difficult
recovery from surgery for a heart defect.
As you cross the street afterward, holding hands and swinging the
little one up in the air, you think, “This is what it’s about.” You
know it’s one of the best days of your life. For Michael Morton, that
day was August 12, 1986. He had just turned 32.
The next day, it was all taken away. The dream became a nightmare.
Christine, his wife, was attacked and killed at their home in
Williamson County, Texas, just outside Austin. Michael Morton was at
work at the time. Still, authorities suspected him.
Innocent people think that if you just tell the truth, then you’ve got
nothing to fear from the police,” Morton says now. “If you just stick
to it that the system will work, it’ll all come to light, everything
will be fine.” (Obviously they are wrong.)
Instead, Morton was charged, ripped away from his boy, and put on
trial. The prosecutor, speaking to the jury in emotional terms with
tears streaming down his face, laid out a graphic, depraved sexual
scenario, accusing Morton of bludgeoning his wife for refusing to have
sex on his birthday.
“There was no scientific evidence, there was no eyewitness, there was
no murder weapon, there was no believable motive,” Morton says. “… I
didn’t see how any rational, thinking person would say that’s enough
for a guilty verdict.” But with no other suspects, the jury convicted
him. “We all felt so strongly that this was justice for Christine and
that we were doing the right thing,” says Mark Landrum, who was the
Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison.
Trial didn’t include critical evidence
A few years ago, a group of attorneys, working pro bono on Morton’s
behalf, managed to bring the truth to light. Not only was Morton
innocent, but the prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was accused of withholding
crucial evidence. Graph: Freed by DNA testing.
The little boy, Eric, had seen the attack and told relatives that
daddy was not home at the time. He described the man who did it.
Neighbors had described a man parking a green van behind the Mortons’
house and walking off into a wooded area. A blood-stained bandana was
found nearby. None of that evidence made it into the trial.
It took years of fighting, but Morton’s attorneys finally got the
bandana tested for DNA. It contained Christine Morton’s blood and hair
and the DNA of another man — a convicted felon named Mark Norwood.
Norwood had killed Christine Morton. And since no one figured that out
after her death, he remained free. He killed another woman in the
Austin area, Debra Baker, in similar circumstances less than two years
later, authorities say. Norwood has now been convicted in Morton’s
killing, and indicted in Baker’s killing.
Morton was freed in October 2011. He was 57 years old. “I thank God
this wasn’t a capital case,” he said. Morton’s story, told in the CNN
Films’ documentary “An Unreal Dream,” shines a spotlight on wrongful
convictions in the United States. More than 2,000 wrongfully convicted
people were exonerated between 1989 and 2012, according to data
compiled by the University of Michigan Law School.
But Morton’s case has paved new ground that could affect cases nationwide.
Last month, Anderson — Morton’s prosecutor who in 2001 became a judge
— pleaded no contest to a court order to show cause for withholding
exculpatory evidence. A judgment of contempt from the clerk’s office
of the 26th Judicial District, Williamson County, Texas, said the
court found “Anderson in criminal contempt of court on the matters set
out in the show cause order…”
Anderson’s punishment pales in comparison to Morton’s experience. The
former prosecutor stepped down from his position as a judge and agreed
to 10 days in jail. He then served only five of those days, under
Texas laws involving good behavior behind bars.
He also agreed to a $500 fine, 500 hours of community service, and the
loss of his law license, according to the Innocence Project, a legal
clinic affiliated with Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School.
It’s “an extremely rare instance, and perhaps the first time, that a
prosecutor has been criminally punished for failing to turn over
exculpatory evidence,” the Innocence Project said.
The “historic precedent demonstrates that when a judge orders a
prosecutor to look in his file and disclose exculpatory evidence,
deliberate failure to do so is punishable by contempt,” said Barry
Scheck, the project’s co-director. Anderson, meanwhile, has not
publicly acknowledged any personal wrongdoing. In court, he said he
couldn’t remember details of the case, and that he and his family have
been through false accusations over it.
“I apologize that the system screwed up. I’ve beaten myself up on what
I could have done different and I don’t know,” he said, acknowledging
Morton asked a judge to “do what needs to be done, but at
the same time to be gentle with Judge Anderson.”
In prepared remarks outside the courthouse, Anderson repeated that he
wanted to “formally apologize for the system’s failure to Mr. Morton
and every other person who was affected by the verdict.”
A statement released by Anderson on Thursday said, “This resolution
resulted in a finding of contempt only. As stated on the record, this
resolution did not involve any plea by Mr. Anderson to any criminal
The former prosecutor also commented that he “hopes, for the sake of
all persons involved, that this resolution brings an end to the tragic
situation that began with the brutal murder of Christine Morton in
1986 and that was followed by the incorrect conviction and
incarceration of Michael Morton. Mr. Anderson continues to believe
that Mr. Morton’s conviction resulted directly from a medical
examiner’s assessment of Christine Morton’s time of death at 1:30 a.m.
— a time when Mr. Morton was indisputably at home with his wife.
Regardless of the cause of the wrong result reached in the Morton
trial, in light of the DNA results obtained in 2011, Mr. Anderson has
consistently expressed — and continues to express to Mr. Morton and
his family — his regret for Mr. Morton’s prosecution and incorrect
Morton now works on programs to help other innocent people behind
bars. Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed the Michael
Morton Act into law, requiring prosecutors to turn evidence over to
defense lawyers in criminal cases, upon the defendant’s request,
without the need for a court order. (It’s about time.)
The law will make the state’s criminal justice system “fairer and help
[to] prevent wrongful convictions,” Perry said.
‘Life has come full circle.’
Other people often feel far more anger than I do,” Morton says.
“Vindication is very, very good, but it’s something I knew all
along… It’s really nothing new for me.”
He had a religious epiphany in jail, and credits his new-found inner
peace with the knowledge that God “loves me.” “I understand suffering
and unfairness. I can’t think of anything better to receive than that.
I’m good with this.”
He is a lot more magnanimous than I would have been.
Mace J. Yampolsky is a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist, 625
South Sixth St., Las Vegas, NV 89101; He can be reached at: Phone
702-385-9777 or fax 702-385-300. His website is located at:
This is from CNN: Imagine being out to dinner with the love of your