DNA tests in two Austin-area murders could exonerate a man who has been in prison for 21 years and help solve a similar local crime, Innocence Project says
(AUSTIN, TX; August 6, 2008) – Attorneys for a man who was convicted of killing his wife in 1987 filed a federal lawsuit seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence – and he is joined in the case by the family of a woman who was murdered in a remarkably similar crime 28 years ago that remains unsolved. DNA testing, which the prosecutor has resisted for years, could solve both crimes, according to the Innocence Project.
Michael Morton was convicted in February 1987 and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine, in August 1986 in Williamson County, Texas, about an hour outside of Austin. In November 1980, Mildred McKinney was murdered less than a mile from the Morton home in a strikingly similar crime. Both victims were bludgeoned to death after bloody assaults in their bedrooms. Neither crime scene showed any signs of forced entry – yet in both, unidentified fingerprints were found on unlocked, sliding glass doors to the home. And both victims were found with several items of household furniture stacked on top of their bodies.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin Tuesday afternoon, Morton was joined by McKinney’s daughter in a request for DNA testing and fingerprint analysis in both cases, arguing that the tests could identify one man who committed both crimes. In papers filed in federal court, McKinney’s daughter (Patricia Stapleton) argues that she is entitled to DNA testing in her mother’s case under federal and state law – including the Texas Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights.
The case is believed to be the first in the nation in which a crime victim or a victim’s relative has joined a prisoner in a lawsuit seeking DNA testing.
“For more than three years, the local prosecutor has fought DNA and fingerprint testing that could prove Michael Morton’s innocence and finally solve both of these crimes,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York, represents Morton with co-counsel John Raley of the Cooper & Scully law firm. “Patricia Stapleton and Michael Morton come from very different backgrounds, but they have a common goal to use science and every available law enforcement tool to finally reveal the truth in these cases and find justice for their loved ones.”
Morton was convicted of murdering his wife – with whom he had a three-year-old son – based on the prosecution’s theory that he killed her in a “sexual rage” because she had declined to have sex with him after the couple went out to dinner to celebrate his birthday. The prosecution theorized that he beat her to death with a blunt object and proceeded to masturbate over her corpse. Morton testified that his wife was alive when he left for work early the next morning, and must have been murdered by an unknown intruder. The prosecution’s case was buttressed by the testimony of a forensic analyst from the Texas Department of Public Safety whose findings were later discredited. A serologist testified that a semen stain on the bed sheets contained only the proteins in seminal fluid and lacked any contribution from the victim’s vaginal cells, supporting the prosecution’s masturbation theory. In the late 1990s, Morton was permitted to have this stain retested using advanced DNA testing, revealing that the stain was actually a mixture of DNA from Morton and his wife, with five to ten times more DNA from his wife, thus discrediting the prosecution’s theory of the crime. Another expert, Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, testified that Mrs. Morton’s death occurred “no later than 1:15 a.m.” – based on nothing more than an examination of her stomach contents at autopsy. Dr. Bayardo (who, in subsequent years, has also been shown to have made major errors in numerous autopsies he conducted) conceded that his opinion in the Morton case was “not a scientific statement.” Dr. Bayardo had originally told investigators that Mrs. Morton was killed at any time between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. — an assessment that would have been fully consistent with Morton’s claim that his wife was alive when he left for work at 5:30 a.m.
Mrs. Morton’s bludgeoned body was found in the bedroom of the Mortons’ home in Williamson County by a neighbor who entered the home after seeing the Mortons’ young son wandering outside. The assailant had piled bulky household objects – a Samsonite suitcase and large wicker basket, as well as bedding – on top of the corpse’s head and chest area before fleeing the scene. A sliding glass door was found unlocked and fingerprints were lifted at the scene. Swabs, hair samples, and clothing were taken from Mrs. Morton’s body.
Critical DNA and fingerprint evidence in the Morton case remains untested. In particular, a blood-stained bandana found less than100 feet from the Mortons’ home – along the very path that Morton’s trial lawyers argued that the perpetrator would have used to flee the scene — was collected by investigators. The bandana is now available for DNA testing, and the results could then be entered into the CODIS convicted-offender databank – potentially yielding a “hit” to someone who has committed similar crimes. In addition, fingerprints from key areas of the crime scene that did not come from any member of the Morton family can now be entered into state and national fingerprint databases. These DNA and fingerprint databases were not available at the time of Morton’s trial in 1987.
“These forensic databases are critical crime-solving tools, but only if we make use of them. The state legislature should amend the laws to strengthen defendants’ ability to get a pre-trial or post-conviction court order to have DNA and fingerprints run through databases that can help identify alternate suspects,” said Scheck, who will raise that issue when speaking in Austin today at a meeting of the new Criminal Justice Integrity Unit at the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Neither Morton nor the jury that convicted him knew about the remarkably similar Mildred McKinney murder. The jury was not able to consider whether the marked similarities between the two crimes raised the possibility that they may have been committed by the same intruder.
In November 1980, Stapleton and her husband arrived at the home of her 83-year-old mother, Mildred McKinney, to find her bloody corpse lying just between the door to her bedroom and an adjacent bathroom. McKinney lived alone in a duplex apartment in Williamson County. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of bludgeoning and strangulation and she had been sexually assaulted. The perpetrator had covered McKinney’s head and chest area with several bulky household items – a reclining chair, an end table, and a vacuum cleaner – before fleeing the scene. There were no signs of forced entry to the home, although a sliding glass door to the home was unlocked. Investigators did not recover a murder weapon but several fingerprints and/or handprints were lifted from the scene – including a bloody fingerprint from the unlocked sliding glass door to her home. A rape kit believed to contain semen, fingernail clippings, and hair samples was also taken.
The McKinney murder remains unsolved. Over the years, Stapleton had been regularly assured by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office that they would do whatever they could to solve her mother’s murder. Stapleton only learned in recent months that items of evidence from the crime may well be available and highly suitable for forensic analysis, and that the District Attorney had been fighting Morton’s efforts to get DNA testing and fingerprint analysis in his case and the McKinney case since 2005.
“Local law enforcement assured Patricia Stapleton that they were still pursuing the case, while in fact they were blocking efforts to conduct DNA testing and fingerprint analysis that could identify the man who killed her mother. There is simply no rational reason to deny DNA testing in either one of these cases,” said Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison.
In early 2005, the Innocence Project and John Raley, representing Morton, filed a lawsuit in state court seeking DNA testing and fingerprint analysis, at Morton’s own expense, on various items of evidence from both the Morton and McKinney crime scenes. Morton’s attorneys argued that DNA profiles and fingerprints from both crimes could be entered into forensic databases and yield a “hit” to a convicted offender and solve both crimes. The District Attorney opposed the motion, but a judge granted testing on some evidence from the Morton case. The testing lab Orchid Cellmark was unable to obtain suitable biological material from most of the items. Other testing was not probative, and Morton has continued seeking the right to test other items of evidence.
Nationwide, 218 people have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. In nearly 40% of those cases, the actual perpetrators have been identified, often through DNA testing. In Texas, 32 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and the actual perpetrators have been identified in nearly one-third of those cases.
A team of lawyers from the law firm of Cooper & Scully has been working pro bono on Mr. Morton’s behalf as co-counsel with the Innocence Project since 2003.