My Work On the Michael Morton Case
by Nina Morrison
Senior Staff Attorney
Originally posted on the
Since I joined The Innocence Project over ten years ago, I’ve represented 20 innocent prisoners who were freed by DNA testing, including Michael Morton. In total, over 300 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and they collectively served more than 4,000 years in prison for crimes that they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project, a national non-profit organization founded in 1992, worked on the majority of those cases. For a lawyer, nothing compares to that feeling in the courtroom when an innocent client is finally exonerated. And there is certainly no greater moment than walking out of court with them into the sunshine of the “free world” for the first time in years or decades.
Getting to that day in Michael’s case wasn’t easy or quick. When prosecutors agree to DNA testing, a case can be resolved in a relatively short time. In Michael’s case, the prosecution fought the testing every step of the way. After more than eight years and many court battles, my Texas co-counsel, John Raley, and I were able to finally get the DNA test results that proved Michael’s innocence and identified the true perpetrator.
During those years, Michael was always a pleasure to have as a client. John and I were often incredibly frustrated about the slow progress of the case – with the system and with ourselves – but Michael couldn’t have been more patient and appreciative. The same grace, poise, and sense of humor you see him exhibit on
is exactly how he was, even while sitting in a prison cell not knowing when or if he’d ever get out.
Each exoneration reveals an incredible story of suffering and hope. But I think Michael’s story resonates with the public so much because it involves such an unimaginable array of tragic circumstances. Not only did Michael go to prison for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit, but he also lost his own wife to a horrible murder – and then had to live with the fact that everyone but a few close family members and friends thought he was the one who had killed her. He didn’t get to raise his only son, and almost lost contact with Eric forever. As if that weren’t enough, we have discovered that the man who is now being charged with Michael’s wife’s murder allegedly may have killed another young mother in the area while Michael was wrongfully imprisoned.
Michael’s case has shined a light on some of the worst problems we see in the criminal justice system. Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest people who follow the law. But unfortunately, in some cases, we discover that a prosecutor not only sent an innocent person to prison, but deliberately withheld evidence of that person’s innocence from the defense and jury. In this case, we found several pieces of evidence of Michael’s innocence in the state’s original files that did not appear to have been turned over to the defense or the trial judge as required. A special court proceeding, called a “court of inquiry,” will take place in Texas later this year to determine whether the prosecutor in Michael’s case broke the law by withholding that evidence.
It’s hard to imagine that any prosecutor would want to “win” a case that badly. But in Michael’s case, based on what we know now, it appears that Michael never would have gone to prison if the jury had all the facts at trial.
Many people are understandably outraged that this sort of thing could happen in America. So are we. An integral part of the Innocence Project’s work is to improve the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and make the system fair and equal for everyone. Michael is working with us to hold the system accountable and make sure that what happened to him never happens again.
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