Grace, Lawyers Save Victim of Texas Injustice


“Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream,” Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand wrote in 1923. But the Williamson County, Texas, District Attorney’s office was not haunted by the railroad job on Michael Morton, which led to a 25-year nightmare of wrongful imprisonment.

The morning after his birthday in August 1986, Michael Morton, who was then 32, went to work as an Austin grocery store inventory manager, leaving his wife and 3-year-old son Eric asleep at their suburban home north of Austin. Michael returned that evening to find sheriff’s deputies in the house, investigating the beating death of his wife, Christine. The sheriff already had focused on him as the suspect.

"An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story," which had its premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin in mid-March, tells the compelling story of Morton’s trial and conviction in his wife’s murder, the 25-year fight to clear his name, and the remarkable grace that helped him survive and rebuild his life.

The film was directed by Al Reinert, a former Texas journalist best known as director of "For All Mankind," the Oscar-nominated 1989 documentary of the Apollo missions to the moon. He also was a screenwriter for "Apollo 13" in 1996.

The case against Morton was based primarily on a note he left his wife expressing his disappointment that he didn’t get birthday sex when she fell asleep soon after they got home from dinner the previous night — though at the end he scribbled “I L Y” for “I love you,” and signed it “M.”

A coroner estimated the time of death, based on an examination of the contents of Christine’s stomach, as early morning hours, possibly before Morton left for work — though the examiner admitted that his estimate was “not a scientific statement” and a defense witness testified that time of death based on stomach contents was unreliable.

Morton’s lawyer, Bill Allison, apparently did the best he could, knowing little more than his client insisted he was innocent and they had no idea who was guilty.

But the district attorney, Ken Anderson, claimed that Morton was sexually frustrated and masturbated over his dead wife’s body. Two jurors interviewed in the movie said they noticed the defendant’s apparent lack of emotion, in contrast to Anderson’s commanding courtroom presence.

It turned out the district attorney didn’t turn over the sheriff’s investigation files, which the defense lawyer had requested. Those files showed, among other things, that 3-year-old Eric told his maternal grandmother that the attacker was “a monster” and that “Daddy” was not at home at the time. Neighbors told police a stranger had repeatedly parked a green van on a street behind the Mortons’ house and walked off into a nearby wooded area. Christine’s Visa card was found at a San Antonio jewelry store and San Antonio police had a description of the woman who tried to use it after the murder. None of this was disclosed to the defense, despite the prosecutor’s assurance to the judge that all favorable evidence had been given to the defense, as the law requires. All Allison got were a few pages of the sheriff’s notes.

Despite the lack of physical evidence tying Morton to the crime, and no criminal record, jurors believed the DA’s version and convicted Morton of murder in February 1987. He was sentenced to life in prison. For the first few years he concentrated on survival but in his spare time he plotted revenge against the people responsible for putting him in prison, including the sheriff, the district attorney and the jury foreman, if he got out.

His sister-in-law raised Eric, and brought the boy to see Michael until, in 2001, Eric, who had turned 18, wrote to tell his father that his aunt and uncle were formally adopting him, he was changing his name and he no longer wanted to see Michael. “When I lost him,” Michael said in the documentary, “that’s what broke me.” But he gave himself up to the grace of God, and he realized that vengeance was useless. “It’s akin to drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies from it.”

His luck began to turn in 2002 when Allison asked for help from the New York-based Innocence Project, which sought to reopen cases where advances in DNA technology could make a difference. The Project enlisted John Raley, a Houston lawyer, to take up the case pro bono. In 2005 Raley filed a motion to get a DNA test on a bloody bandana that was found behind the Mortons’ house the day after the murder but never tied to the murder by investigators. John Bradley, an Anderson protégé who succeeded him as district attorney in 2002 when Anderson was named a district judge, fought the motion to DNA-test the bandana and hairs found with it, arguing that it would “muddy the waters.” A state appeals court finally ordered the DNA testing, which in June 2011 found the blood and hair was Christine Morton’s but other DNA from another unknown male also was found.

Morton was released from prison in October 2011. He was exonerated in December 2011. Eric, who no longer could remember details of the murder and had been raised believing that his father killed his mother, wasn’t sure how to deal with the news that his father was innocent. “There was no room in my life for this,” he said. But Eric and his father eventually were reconciled.

The DNA test also implicated a known felon who was living in Austin at the time of the killing. He was charged not only with the murder of Christine Morton, but also that of another young woman, Debra Baker, who was beaten to death in Austin a year after Morton was sent to prison.

Former District Attorney Anderson, now a judge, faced a court of inquiry in February to examine the complaints that he withheld evidence. Mark Alan Norwood was convicted in the Morton murder by a San Angelo jury March 27 and he was sentenced to life in prison. He faces a capital murder charge in the death of Debra Baker.

After the screening of the documentary March 16, Morton said he realized that ultimately he must forgive the people who wronged him, “but I’m not there yet.”

Raley said there must be accountability for a prosecutor who conceals evidence, just as there would be if a defense attorney tried to tamper with evidence. “There should be criminal penalties. You’re obstructing justice,” he said. (See

Other Documentaries of Note

Among the scores of narratives and documentaries featured at the South By Southwest Film Festival were 10 other documentaries that are well worth checking out:

"All the Labor" was a local favorite, a documentary of The Gourds, an Austin band described as "too happy-go-lucky for the earnest fans of roots music, too plaid and pragmatic for the hippies, too old and hairy for the mainstream, too young to be called legends," but for nearly two decades "the musical distillation of Austin itself." The documentary by Doug Hawes-Davis captures The Gourds' enduring brotherhood and musicianship through conversations, raucous performances, on-tour interviews and reflections and insight from friends and family.

"Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker," by Lily Keber, tells the story of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, who no less than Dr. John described as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." Booker was an eccentric musician who fused secular, sacred, pop and classical traditions in the 1960s and 1970s, taught Harry Connick Jr. to play the piano and taught Dr. John to play the organ. Booker recorded and lost master tapes to several legendary sessions before addiction to drugs and alcohol ultimately led to his death in 1983, though some classic albums managed to get produced.

"Born in Chicago" by John Anderson is a documentary that recounts the pilgrimages of young white middle-class musicians such as Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, as well as the Rolling Stones, to Chicago in the 1960s to meet and learn licks from Delta bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson.

"Downloaded" is a documentary by Alex Winter on the experiences of Shawn Fanning, a hacker and programmer, and his business partner Sean Parker, who were both teenagers in 1999 when they started Napster, the file-sharing service that enabled youngsters to share songs over the Internet, which brought down the wrath of the recording industry but helped lay the groundwork for music digitizers such as iTunes and Spotify who came after.

"Getting Back to Abnormal," a documentary by Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler, studies the racial and political dynamics of New Orleans as the city tried to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, by telling the story of Stacy Head, a polarizing white woman, who won a seat on the city council as a reformer in 2006 and then was faced with the challenge of attracting black votes to get re-elected in the majority-black district.

"Good Ol' Freda" is a documentary by Ryan White that pays tribute to Freda Kelly, the secretary of the Beatles' fan club who got to know the band when they were doing lunchtime gigs at the Cavern Club, near where she worked in a secretary pool, in LIverpool in the early 1960s. She was hired by Brian Epstein in 1962 to handle the group's fan correspondence and worked for the Beatles for 11 years, until after they broke up. She never told her story until now and gives perhaps the ultimate insider's view of the Fab Four. The mark of the respect the Beatles and their heirs hold for Kelly is that they agreed to let the filmmaker use Beatles song for the soundtrack — which is unheard of.

"Hawking" by Stephen Finnigan tells the extraordinary story of the world's most famous living scientist, Stephen Hawking, in his own words and by those closest to him, from his start as an underachiever in boyhood and his diagnosis with motor neuron disease in his final year as an undergraduate at Oxford University in 1963 — which despite doctors' estimate that he only had two years to live did not stop him from achieving his doctorate in 1966 and a distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author of "A Brief History of Time," which has sold more than 10 million copies.

"I Am Divine," a documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz, is an engaging portrait of Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine, who became a drag superstar through the films of John Waters, his high school friend from Baltimore, and was finally getting good notices with the release of "Hairspray," reconciled with his family and seemed on the verge of mainstream success in 1988 when he booked a guest slot on the TV show "Married with Children" that was envisioned to be a recurring role, but he died in his bed the night before the episode was to be shot. He was 42.

"Pete and Toshi Get a Camera," a documentary by William Eigen, looks back at the indefatigable Pete and Toshi Seeger, who got a 16mm movie camera and started filming their musician friends and other experiences while Pete was banned from performing in the US as he fought charges for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. An appeals court in 1962 overturned his conviction on 10 counts of contempt of Congress, but Pete Seeger still found himself largely blacklisted in the US, so in 1963 the Seegers took their three children on a 10-month trip around the world, with stops in 28 countries, including Africa, India, Australia, Japan, Poland, the Soviet Union (at the height of the Cold War) and Ireland. The film includes interviews and the music they found and shared.

"This Ain't No Mouse Music" by Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling tells the story of Chris Strachwitz, a collector of folk music and founder of Arhoolie Records who was an ethnic German refugee from Poland after World War II who explored Cajun music in Louisiana, Tex-Mex music in Texas, rural blues, Appalachian hillbilly music and other eclectic styles — as opposed to the corporate "mouse music" that dominated pop culture in the 1960s and '70s, for which he had no use.

After the screening, Strachwitz noted that his most lucrative move was to record Country Joe McDonald performing "Fixing To Die Rag" in 1965. When McDonald asked how much the recording cost, Strachwitz said it was on the house, but inquired whether he had a publisher for the song. McDonald said he didn't, but he gave Strachwitz half the rights if he could make anything of it. Four years later, McDonald was recorded singing it at Woodstock, it was featured in the blockbuster concert film, the royalties started pouring in, and Strachwitz used the income to buy a building that still houses Arhoolie and Down Home Music in El Cerrito, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2013

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