I was born and bred in Texas, and Texas was born and bred into me. Maybe that’s why I’ve always bristled when our state’s justice system is mocked around the rest of the country. Try ‘em and hang ‘em seems to be the creed the rest of America thinks we Texans live by. Yes, we’re a death penalty state (and there are a few native Texans who disagree on that one) but we’ve never been accused of going soft on crime.
It’s stories like the one of Michael Morton that give me chills, however.
On August 13, 1986, Christine Morton was found beat to death in the bed of her Williamson County home in northwest Austin. Williamson County Sheriff’s Office immediately zeroed in on a note left to his wife from Michael telling her how unhappy he was with how she had acted on his birthday the night before. This, they claimed, was motive for the savage early-morning beating of Christine while their 3-year-old son Eric was in the house. Six weeks after the attack Michael Morton was tried and found guilty of murder. The man with no criminal record was sentenced to life in prison.
The case is a classic example of an official completely enamored of his own notoriety and those in a position to check that power instead being enablers. Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell was a no-nonsense law enforcement official who was famous for eliciting several confessions out of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Under Boutwell’s prodding, Lucas eventually confessed to more than 600 murders, an absolutely ludicrous claim considering he got the facts of the murders wrong and there was never any evidence to tie him to any of the crimes. Boutwell himself realized this when he said of one murder Lucas was on trial for: "Even if they don’t believe Henry did this one, they know he done a lot of them, and they’ll want to see him put away for good."
Due to Lucas’ confessions, Boutwell became a star of sorts in the law enforcement community with officials all over the world wanting to travel to Williamson County and interview Lucas. Unfortunately, what the sheriff had gotten from Lucas had been spoon-fed, coerced out of him and simply wrong. In a very unusual instance, then-Governor George W. Bush eventually commuted Lucas’ death sentence to life in prison. In the spring of 1986, Texas attorney general Jim Mattox issued a blistering report blasting the Lucas "hoax" and the investigators behind it.
This, then, was the man who investigated and ultimately doomed Michael Morton to nearly 25 years in prison. With Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson firmly on the side of Boutwell, Michael Morton was railroaded into a murder charge despite no evidence that he had any involvement. As a matter of fact, there was evidence to the contrary as a bloody bandana was found near the murder scene which didn’t contain any evidence from Michael Morton and a man with a green van was seen snooping around the back of the Morton’s house in the days prior to the murder. Did I mention that 3-year-old Eric actually saw the man who beat his mother to death taking a shower fully clothed in their house while he said his father was at work?
The problem is, Anderson withheld that evidence — all of it — from the judge, from the jury and from Michael Morton’s own attorneys. Thanks to the hard work of people who believed in the man’s innocence, DNA found on that bandana would eventually free Michael Morton in 2011 and lead to the arrest of another man, Mark Alan Norwood, who’s DNA was found on that piece of fabric along with evidence from the body of Christine Morton.
This story is a depressing must-read that should serve as a warning to those who take everything at face value. Michael Morton was eventually cleared in 2011 by the state with an extremely rare declaration of innocence, awarded nearly $2 million in compensation and is trying to rebuild his life. Sheriff Boutwell is long since deceased but his legacy is now a tarnished one. DA Anderson was found guilty of hiding evidence by a specially convened court of inquiry in April, arrested, released and will face future criminal charges. The man who sits in judgment of others as a Texas judge may himself be facing prison time. And finally, what of the man who caused all of this? Norwood received life in prison in March for his role in Christine Morton’s murder and could still face charges in another very similar murder that happened nearly two years later in Austin in which his DNA was also found.
The lengths to which people will go to build their legacy at the expense of others is truly stunning. There is a special evil inherent in those who would railroad an innocent man. To check out this amazing story, go to http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/innocent-man-part-one?fullpage=1.
And one other note: on May 16 Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, the Michael Morton act, which is designed to help prevent wrongful convictions in Texas.