In 1987, I sat in a Williamson County courtroom and watched and listened
as an innocent man was convicted for brutally murdering his wife. He was
sentenced to 99 years in prison.
I was a law student at the University of Texas School of Law and worked
for a small criminal defense firm, not unlike the small criminal defense
firm I own and operate today. The attorneys of that firm, Bill Allison
and Bill White, represented the defendant, Michael Morton.
You've probably heard that name – Michael Morton – recently.
If you haven’t, you need to know who he is, because he is symbolic
of how unfair and destructive our criminal justice system can be when
the people who run it don't do their jobs. Convicted in 1987 of the
murder of Christine Morton, Michael spent 25 years in prison for the crime.
But, he didn't do it. And that’s not just rhetoric; Michael Morton is innocent of the
murder of his wife and everybody in the system now, decades later, admits
he didn't do it.
In fact, because the law enforcement officers and prosecutors involved
became so determined to convict Michael, they neglected to follow up on
any other leads that may have led to the real killer. So, while they were
convicting Michael Morton and stealing his life, the real killer killed
again, not far from Michael’s home.
If my tone sounds angry, it’s because I
am angry about how this case was handled and what happened to Michael. While
working for Bill White and Bill Allison on Michael’s defense, it
became clear to me that the officers and prosecutors involved seemed hell-bent
on convicting Michael at all costs. I will never forget watching then-District
Attorney Ken Anderson deliver his closing argument; emotional and angry,
he inflamed the jury by asserting florid conclusions from the “facts”
that seemed to me, merely a young law student, to be unsupported by the
evidence and outrageously out of line. I thought he was out of control.
As it turned out, he was completely wrong about what happened. And, Bill
White and Bill Allison were completely right about what happened. Someone
else really did climb over the back fence after Michael left for work
that morning and murdered Christine. (And it bears noting that Bill White
and Bill Allison are two of Texas’s finest defense attorneys. Michael
had a strong and effective defense, but it was no match for the unethical
tactics of the prosecutors and law enforcement officers so determined
to put Michael in prison.)
So how did this happen? As it turns out, very important evidence that would
have helped Bill White and Bill Allison support their defensive theory
was withheld from them by the prosecutor. This is not an idle accusation;
it happened. And, because it happened, the prosecutor who tried the case, Ken Anderson,
was recently convicted of contempt, sentenced to 10 days in jail, and
Tonight at 8 p.m. CNN will broadcast “An Unreal Dream: The Michael
Morton Story.” Watch it. I haven’t seen it yet, but it is
a story that needs to be told and needs to be seen by everyone. Michael
lost everything to a system that completely failed. He lost his wife.
He was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for murdering her. He lost his
young son, who, believing that his father murdered his mother, stopped
visiting his father in prison, and eventually changed his name. It is
an unimaginable tale of how our system can fail and the awful consequences
of its failure.
One thing you will learn from this movie and Michael’s story is what
a truly amazing human being Michael Morton is. He is not bitter, he is
not broken. He has been a major force in reforming the discovery process
in Texas’s criminal justice system. He has handled his tragic circumstances
with unbelievable grace.
You owe it to Michael to watch. You owe it to Michael to be mindful of how the system can fail and the
awful human consequences when it does. We need to do everything we can
to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. If we ignore
Michael’s story, it will.