Tonight on CNN: “An Unreal Dream”

January 1, 2013 | By Shane Phelps Law
Tonight on CNN: “An Unreal Dream”

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 was disbarred.

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.