By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas father who spent nearly 25 years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit is pressing for tougher penalties targeting prosecutors who withhold evidence, saying he wants to prevent other innocent people from falling victim to overzealous authorities.
"This isn't about me because my case is finished," Michael Morton said during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "But there's no reason it can't happen to you or to anyone."
Morton was convicted in the fatal 1986 beating of his wife by a prosecutor who Morton and his attorneys believe knowingly withheld critical evidence. Morton walked out of prison a free man last October, after DNA testing cleared him and pointed to another man now charged in the murder and implicated in a similar 1988 slaying.
Morton was awarded nearly $2 million under the state's compensation law, and a special prosecutor is investigating whether the lead prosecutor in his case — now a Texas judge — hid evidence.
But Morton said his fight isn't over.
He plans to sit down with lawmakers and State Bar officials, and use the notoriety he reluctantly gained from his high-profile exoneration, to get tough new rules in place that would ensure prosecutors could be fined or even disbarred for concealing evidence in Texas, where more former inmates have been exonerated than any other state.
"We want to tell prosecutors, 'Just play fair, follow the rules, obey the law," Morton said. "I'm not a lawyer, but I've been around a whole bunch of them lately. They can do this and we can help get the Legislature to make it doable, too."
Investigations of court officers are rare, and the one against Ken Anderson — a rising star among young prosecutors when he handled Morton's trial in 1987 — is especially so since he's now a Texas District Court judge.
Using an even and easy tone, his voice quiet and direct, the 57-year-old Morton said he's moved beyond his hate for Anderson, then-Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell and the other investigators who helped convict him while he was trying to grieve the death of his wife, Christine, and shield their 3-year-old son.
"This was intentional," Morton said, betraying the only hint of anger he showed during his nearly 90-minute conversation with AP. "This wasn't a slip of the tongue or a typo."
Morton believes that Boutwell, who has since died, made up his mind early that he was guilty, and that Anderson was so fixated on successfully securing a conviction that he ignored the truth.
Rather than seeing Anderson punished, however, Morton simply wants him held accountable.
"I wanted revenge for a long time. I plotted the murder of Sherriff Boutwell and Ken Anderson, and a lot of folks involved with my incarceration," he said. "At a certain point, I had to let that go."
What he hasn't let go is the last memory of Christine. Morton remembers kissing his wife of seven years before leaving for work at 5:30 a.m. the day after his 32nd birthday. Sometime later that day, she was beaten to death in her bed by an intruder in their Austin home. The couple's son, Eric, was unharmed.
During his trial, Anderson told jurors that Christine Morton had fallen asleep instead of having sex with her husband after a dinner out to celebrate his birthday. Anderson said Morton flew into a rage and killed her, though investigators had little physical evidence and Morton had no criminal record.
Morton and his attorneys now accuse Anderson of not turning over all evidence, even after the presiding judge explicitly ordered him to do so. Among that evidence were statements from then-3-year-old Eric, who told his grandmother that he witnessed the murder and his father wasn't responsible, and from a neighbor who described seeing a man park a green van near the Morton home and walk into a wooded area behind it.
Anderson apologized in November for what he called "the system's failure," but hasn't spoken publicly about the case since. His attorney, Eric Nichols, noted it was DNA testing unavailable in 1987 that set Morton free, not witness statements and other previously undisclosed evidence.
"It is a terrible tragedy that Mr. Morton served over 24 years for a crime that he apparently did not commit and Judge Anderson has recognized the enormity of that tragedy," Nichols said by phone. "But the fact that Mr. Morton was tried based on the evidence that was available at the time does not mean that there was prosecutorial misconduct."
Anderson will face a proceeding called a "court of inquiry," whereby court officials can face sanctions, in September.
For years, Morton filed appeals from prison and eventually began working with the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit that specializes in using DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions, and Houston attorney John Raley.
The district attorney's office spent many of those same years arguing that additional DNA testing wasn't necessary in Morton's case — until last summer, when testing was performed on a blue bandana found near the Morton home shortly after the murder.
It revealed Christine Morton's blood, along with DNA not from her husband, but of another man: Mark Norwood. He was arrested and charged late last year, and also has been linked by DNA evidence to the slaying of Debra Masters Baker, who was beaten to death in her home close to where the Mortons lived in January 1988.
When asked about Baker's death, Morton said: "For me, there's no doubt" that authorities' fixation on him allowed a murder to kill again.
Morton said he's slowly rebuilding his relationship with his son, who was raised by Morton's sister-in-law and her husband. Eric Morton eventually cut off ties while his father was in prison and changed his last name when he turned 18.
"That was the darkest time," Morton said, recalling when he was told of his son's name change. "But if I'd been in his shoes, lord knows what I would have done."
Morton now gets recognized on the street, and a stranger even gave him a 2001 Chevy Tahoe that Morton later gave to another exonerated former Texas inmate.
On Thursday, as he posed for AP photographs near the Texas Capitol, a woman pulled up and rolled down her window.
"Hey, I know you," she cried thrusting her arm in Morton's direction. "You're the one who didn't do it!"
Morton smiled, nodded and called out: "Thank you."