Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for murdering his wife, Christine, until DNA testing proved his innocence and implicated the real perpetrator. Since his December exoneration, the Texas Supreme Court has ordered a Court of Inquiry to determine whether the prosecutor contributed to Morton’s wrongful conviction by concealing evidence of Morton’s innocence from the defense. The case is the subject of an upcoming
piece that will air Sunday, March 25 at 7 p.m. EST.
Once Morton had a chance to reconnect with family and get settled in his new life, the Innocence Project spoke with him about the injustice and how he survived it:
Let’s start by talking about your life before the wrongful conviction.
I’ve often felt how almost excruciatingly average we were, a chunk out of a demographic study: the house, the yard, the kid, the car. We had everything but the picket fence. It was good.
What kinds of activities did you pursue during your years in prison?
I got my BS and MA while I was in prison. I was very fortunate to walk out of there with a Masters in Literature. All the prisoners were hungry to learn, so the professors actually enjoyed coming into the prison. I was most intrigued with Dante’s Divine Comedy. You go to hell, you go to purgatory and you go to heaven. Everybody knows about hell.
Tell us about your experience working with the Innocence Project.
In my eyes, the people at the Innocence Project are saints because of what you do. The lengths to which the attorneys go is just amazing. Nina Morrison moved heaven and earth for me.
At the hearing, one of the court reporters asked Nina: “Honey, could you slow down a little bit? I can’t keep up.” She’s on fire. She’s more than a lawyer; this is her life. But we had some dark days with some blank lab results. Whenever you see one of the exonerations on TV, you must realize that it’s a herculean effort, and you can’t know what is involved unless you’re in it. It takes a small army to do this.
When did the big break come?
When I first got the news of the DNA hit. They told me on my birthday, August 12. It was a long shot thing, a Hail Mary pass. Apparently, the perpetrator had a bandana with him and my wife’s DNA was on it, and his DNA was on it. We’re assuming that either he dropped it, or it fell out of his pocket, or he threw it away. And miracle of miracles, my brother-in-law found it and gave it to the police. It had been sitting there for a quarter century until the Innocence Project got it tested.
How did you feel walking into that courtroom for your exoneration hearing?
I put on free world clothes for the first time in a quarter century. They were just khakis, but they were so soft and comfortable that I got choked up for a moment. The photographers were four deep and they stretched 180 degrees. When I got convicted, I was the boogey man; they hated my guts. Now, it’s the opposite. Some of the reporters were weeping. It’s like night and day. It’s like coming up out of the water.
What is the lesson that you think the criminal justice system should learn from your case?
I don’t want to punish the prosecutor. I’m not asking for incarceration, but if a prosecutor violates the law, just have them liable for a monetary fine and a loss of their license. That would stop this cold. No prosecutor is going to think: should I risk my law license to lock this guy up? We don’t want to upend or revolutionize the system, just make it fair and accountable. Make everybody follow the law.
How do you feel now? How have you been adjusting?
I don’t feel bitter. One of the lawyers told me something the other day: Revenge is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies from it. You can’t have that hate in you. That will kill you.
I’ve been out about five months now. 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.
Michael Morton was freed with the help of the Innocence Project and the law firm of Raley & Bowick and Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley in October 2011 and exonerated by the state on December 19.
For more information about the case, read the Innocence Project’s press release about the
or about the
Court of Inquiry