The Most Important Book You Will Read This Year

January 1, 2014 | By Shane Phelps Law
The Most Important Book You Will Read This Year

I’ve just finished reading one of the most moving and important books I’ve ever read.

Now, respectfully, you need to read it. The book is Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace.

It is the story of Michael Morton, in his own eloquent and compelling words. If you do not know, Michael Morton is one of the most significant figures in modern-day Texas criminal jurisprudence.

In 1987, Michael Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison. He served 25 years before being exonerated of the crime and acknowledged by all, including the prosecutors who hid evidence from his attorneys in the original trial and the District Attorney who fought to prevent DNA testing of important evidence for years, to be completely and actually innocent. Michael won his exoneration with the help of courageous and tireless attorneys like John Raley of Houston, Bill Allison of Austin, and Barry Scheck and his colleagues from the Innocence Project in New York.

But, the story here – and it is an incredible and inspirational story – is Michael Morton. Michael has somehow survived being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, losing his only son, and losing his wife at the hands of a savage murderer to become a stronger and better human than any I know.

I had the privilege of meeting Michael recently. I had not seen him since I sat in the courtroom about 28 years ago and watched as the prosecutor destroyed Michael’s life. Now, he is free and clearly at peace – with himself, his accusers, and his God. He has turned this nightmarish experience into profound and meaningful change in the way we do things in the criminal justice system in Texas. I admire him more than I can say.

His book is remarkable. Michael is a tremendous writer, having used the time in prison to gain his master’s degree in English and hone his writing skills to the point that reading his book is at once moving and absorbing. And, it is funny. That he has a sense of humor at all after his harrowing ordeal and desperate journey is nothing short of miraculous.

Michael’s story is one of tragedy, despair, injustice, and then redemption, hope and grace. He is free. He has reunited with his son. He has found new love. He has changed the world. And he was able to sit in a courtroom and watch as the real killer of his beautiful wife, Christine, was convicted and justly condemned to a life in prison. It is a measure of Michael Morton that he asked the prosecutors in that case not to seek the death penalty.

We all have problems. We all despair sometimes. With very few exceptions, none of us has experienced the heartache, tragedy, and feeling of utter helplessness that Michael survived. And he did it with such dignity. I don’t think I could have done it. Michael’s story shows us that we can survive any ordeal and emerge better and stronger. It is a story of survival, hope, faith, and strength. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book who will not benefit in significant ways from Michael’s heroic journey.

When I was a prosecutor, my worst nightmare was sending an innocent person to prison or, God help me, to death row. That fear, born of my experience as a law clerk for the attorneys who ably defended Michael all those years ago, watching as an innocent man was convicted and destroyed, made me a better prosecutor in the years to follow. No question. That experience taught me that the system is flawed and can wreak enormous damage on the lives of Texans if those wielding the power of life and death in the criminal justice system do not do so with an abiding respect for the rights of citizens they serve, an appreciation for the awesome power they wield, and a healthy sense of humility.

But this book is not just for lawyers and others involved in the criminal justice system. As my wife, Jean, points out, it has a strong and important message for all of us. At one time or another each of us may be called to take part in the system, as jurors, witnesses, or as responsible voters educating ourselves about electing the right people to positions of authority in the system. Ultimately, it is the citizens who are called upon to act as jurors who are the final line of defense of our rights, of the integrity of the judicial system, and our fellow citizens. Getting Life demonstrates just how important it is for all of us never to forget our civic responsibilities, to exercise independent judgment when called to serve as jurors, to truly indulge each accused the presumption of innocence, and not just to always trust our government to do the right thing.

Twenty-eight years later, Michael’s story has inspired me to be a better defense attorney. Injustice does happen in our system. People’s lives can be, and have been, destroyed because the system is not perfect, nor are the humans who populate it. I have seen it happen, and not just in Michael’s case.

Everyone needs to read Getting Life. It is an important cautionary tale to those of us in the system, but more than that it is a moving, tragic, and ultimately, joyful chronicle of the unimaginable experience of one very good man – Michael Morton.

You will be personally enriched by reading his story. I promise.

Read Getting Life. Please.

You can order it here.

(I feel so strongly about the importance of Michael’s message that I have purchased a copy of Getting Life for every prosecutor in Brazos County, which we delivered today. It is my fervent hope that they get as much inspiration out of Michael’s story as I did. I know they will benefit personally and I know the system will benefit immeasurably if they take his story to heart.)