On August 12, 1986, Michael Morton and his family, wife Christine and their 3-year-old son Eric, celebrated Michael’s birthday. The next morning, Michael left for work around 5:30 am, arriving 30 minutes later. Co-workers would testify later that he did not appear out of sorts nor did he seem upset.
Christine’s bludgeoned body was found, still in bed, that day. It was determined she’d been beaten to death with something made out of wood and the sheets had semen stains. The semen would later be linked to her husband, which made since considering the murder occurred in the bed they shared.
According to a CBS News report, a neighbor found the couple’s son Eric in the yard of the Morton’s Round Rock home and called authorities, thus initiating the discovery of the woman’s body.
Michael was immediately considered the primary suspect. It is typical for investigators to suspect and rule out loved ones, but, in Michael’s case he felt the police, and especially the district attorney, failed to see beyond him.
A bloody bandana was found about 100 yards from the residence during the examination of the home and surrounding area. Neighbors reported seeing a suspicious green van parked behind the Morton home, and a man was seen walking off into a nearby wooded area. Christine’s Visa credit card was recovered in a store in San Antonio, but no one could ID the person who attempted to use it.
About a month following the crime, Christine’s mother approached the police and told them Eric had witnessed the murder. He described the assault in detail, specifically noting that his daddy was not home at the time. Instead, there was a “monster with a big moustache” beating his mother. But the child’s statement was ignored, according to the New York Times.
Six weeks after the murder Michael was arrested. Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the case alleged the motive was sexual, but didn’t have a weapon or other direct evidence linking Michael to the death of his wife. None of the aforementioned exculpatory evidence was disclosed to the defense or admitted into court during the trial, and DNA was not available at the time, therefore the bloody bandana could not be properly tested for genetic evidence.
In 1987, regardless of his insistence that his wife had likely been killed by an intruder sometime after he left for work, Michael was sentenced to life imprisonment. Michael unjustly languished behind bars for 25 years before the Innocence Project managed to exonerate him using DNA. Bexar County District Judge Sid Harle formally vacated the charges against Michael on December 19, 2011.
Michael was compensated with $2 million under a Texas provision that reimburses those wrongly accused for the time they’ve spent behind bars.
For several years the Innocence Project worked on behalf of Michael to get DNA processed on the blue bandana. The district attorney’s office repeatedly derailed their attempts until 2010 when a third court of appeals ruled in favor of Michael’s defense.
The samples revealed the blood of both Christine and an unknown male. The unknown was run through a CODIS databank and was matched to a convicted felon who had been living in Texas at the time of the murder. In addition to the DNA, a .45 Colt Commander was taken from the Morton home the day of the crime. Police were able to link the suspect to that firearm.
The same evidence that freed Michael implicated another man. On March 27, a San Angelo, Texas jury found 58-year-old Mark Alan Norwood guilty of the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. After deliberating for three hours, the jury convicted and sentenced Norwood to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 15 years. Norwood’s family insists he is innocent.
In addition to the DNA, prosecutors were permitted to bring in corresponding evidence in a similar crime committed in 1988, the beating death of Debra Baker of Austin. A pubic hair in Baker’s case genetically matched Norwood, and he was separately charged with her murder.
The cases had similarities. Both women endured six to eight blows to the skull, both were found in bed with their heads covered, and money and some items were taken from their homes.
An investigation into possible prosecutorial misconduct in Michael’s capital murder case was initiated when Michael’s attorneys submitted a request, asking that a Court of Inquiry investigate the circumstances of the 1987 trial.
The Texas Supreme Court approved the request. The Court of Inquiry looked into the alleged deliberate mishandling of the case by the former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson. Anderson, now 60 and a district judge in Williamson County, was accused of intentionally hiding evidence, or committing what is known as a Brady violation.
A separate state bar investigation determined Anderson cheated Michael out of a fair trial. A disciplinary petition accused Anderson of withholding five pieces of evidence considered favorable to Michael’s defense. The four-page brief asserts Anderson violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct on five counts.
In the Court of Inquiry, Judge Louis Sturns was given 13,000 pages of evidence to evaluate and listened to relevant testimony. This will be used to determine if Anderson will face criminal charges for omitting exculpatory evidence. The court will assess if Anderson acted in contempt of court, if he officially tampered or fabricated evidence, and if he tampered with government records in the 1987 case against Michael.
If he is found guilty, Anderson could be publicly reprimanded, have his law license suspended, or be disbarred.
Former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley spent six years using his influence to block the DNA testing that later exonerated Michael and indicted Norwood. During the official inquiry, Bradley claimed he denied the testing because he relied on his colleague’s assurance that Michael was guilty.
In the original pre-trial in February 1987, the presiding judge requested evidence from both sides, which should have included a file compiled by Sergeant Don Wood, the lead investigating officer in the Christine Morton case.
It was suggested during the current inquiry that Anderson failed to adhere to the request and failed to turn over critical evidence that was deemed favorable to the defense. Anderson testified that no order was ever filed by the judge, making such a request. Regardless, lawyers are legally and ethically obligated to present all available evidence to both the presiding judge and the opposing counsel.
Wood was never called to the stand to testify in the 1987 trial. The defense raised their suspicions evidence had been excluded in the prosecutions pre-trial filings. The prosecution assured the court that all of the evidence had been provided to the defense as required.
A sealed file was given to the judge supposedly containing all of the evidence. But a Public Information Act request later filed during Michael’s many appeals revealed none of Wood’s reports, notes, or eyewitness accounts, the credit card, or other information was included for the judge’s consideration in 1987.
A decision has yet to be made, as the judge in the Court of Inquiry stated it would be several weeks before a final ruling would be declared.
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