I have been familiar with Michael Morton's story -- and the egregiousness of Texas's gross misuse of the justice system to put away men for crimes they didn't commit -- for a while. I picked up his memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man's 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace recently on my library-book binge of true crime.
Michael Morton was married with a small son when he left for work as usual one morning outside of Austin, Texas. His son wasn’t at day care that afternoon when Michael went to pick him up, and when he arrived home, it was cordoned off with crime scene tape. His wife had been brutally beaten to death in her bed with her toddler home to witness it. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, a few weeks after Michael becomes a prime suspect regardless of the evidence of his innocence, including an alibi and his son’s statements. Within a short time Michael is convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison, losing his son and his freedom in a matter of minutes. Decades later his case is taken on by the Innocence Project and Michael is exonerated.
One of the lines that stuck out to me the clearest from his trial preparation was his lawyer telling him that truly innocent people are the hardest to defend in a murder trial. It dawned on me that this statement must be one of the truest I have heard, particularly in light of the hundreds of men and women exonerated in the last decade and a half due to DNA evidence. It’s heartbreaking to know that these mean and women have been sitting in prison for no reason other than hard-headedness and stubbornness on the part of prosecutors, who often have sole discretion on charges, plea deals, and sentencing requests. I found myself livid when I read about Michael’s case having evidence withheld because the prosecutor just simply didn’t call the lead investigator— he called a minor one in order to not have the lead ha d over his notes into discovery. There was information that, presented in court, may very well have exonerated the defendant.
Micheal’s story, along with that of so many others, makes clear that our prosecutorial system must change. People are losing their lives — decades in prison, and many put to death — over crimes they did not commit. It should make you angry. Michael speaks candidly about the pain he endured over losing his child. His in-laws were granted custody, in part because Michael was strategically kept out of court the day of the custody hearing. They believed deep down that Michael was guilty of killing their loved one, and because of that they only put up with the required visitation, keeping his son away from him for most of his childhood. This caused a huge rift between father and son, one that could only be recotified later in life post-exoneration.
The thing that makes me the most angry of all the issues surrounding prosecutorial misconduct is that the obsession with pegging crimes on certain people regardless of evidence to the contrary is that the true perpetrators go free and often kill again. This happened with the Morton killer, and it’s happened in several other cases. The dogged insistence of prosecuting someone around whom there is, at a minimum, reasonable doubt (notwithstanding true innocence) put the rest of us at grave risk. It allows the bad guys to strike again, and prosecutors who have put away innocent men and woman are complicit in this.
Michael’s book is well worth the read if you are just now dipping your toe into the world of faulty convictions. If this is your first go-round, wait until you hear about fade confessions. It will knock your socks off!