SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The last few years in Texas have seen a parade of DNA exonerations - 45 men so far. The first ones were big news, but the print has grown smaller as Texans have watched a dismaying march of exonerees, their wasted years haunting the public conscience.
But now, a case in Williamson County, just north of Austin, is raising the ante. After being sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife, Michael Morton was released last year when DNA testing proved he was not the killer. But instead of merely seeking financial compensation, Mr. Morton and his attorneys, including the Innocence Project, are accusing the district attorney in the case of deliberately withholding exculpatory evidence.
The listener should be advised: This report contains graphic descriptions. Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: On the morning of April 13, 1986, Michael Morton was getting ready for work as head of the pharmacy department at a nearby Safeway store in Austin. He closed the door to his home, blissfully unaware that the next time he saw his wife of seven years she would be in a casket.
Michael Morton had nine hours of his previously normal life left. The clock ran out as he arrived to pick up his son from day care, after work.
MICHAEL MORTON: First time I figured something was up was when I locked eyes with the baby sitter. She looked at me real weird - like, what are you doing here? Eric's not here. Why are you here?
GOODWYN: Michael was immediately worried, and called home. The man who answered was Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell. The sheriff refused to answer Morton's questions, and told him to come home immediately. Morton drove there in a panic.
MORTON: There were a lot of cars in the street. There was a big, yellow, crime-scene ribbon around our house. Neighbors were across the street; you know, clustered on the corner, on the sidewalk, looking over. And you could see they're all talking to each other. And of course, when my truck comes racing up, they all kind of key on me.
GOODWYN: Boutwell met Morton outside the front door and in front of everyone, bluntly told him Christine was dead, murdered in their bedroom. Morton reeled.
MORTON: You really don't know how you're going to react until it happens to you. And with me, I remember - it was as if I was like, falling inside myself.
GOODWYN: Sheriff Boutwell took Morton into the living room, where for the next four hours, with his wife's body still down the hall, Morton answered every question the sheriff could think of - and never once asked for a lawyer.
MORTON: In my mind - forget about how you feel about things - but in my mind, I knew OK, he's doing his job. You have to eliminate the suspects, so he's got to tick off these certain questions and get rid of me as a suspect, and get on with this thing.
GOODWYN: Morton was wrong. Boutwell had already decided that Michael was his number one suspect. The previous day had been Michael's birthday, and the Morton family had gone out for a nice dinner. After getting home and putting Eric to bed, Morton was hoping for a happy ending - you know, with Christine. But that's not what happened, and Michael's feelings were a little hurt. So this is what he wrote the next morning, before he left for work.
MORTON: (Reading) Chris, I know you didn't mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies, then you farted and fell asleep. I'm not mad. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into a fight about sex. Just think how you'd feel if you were left hanging on your birthday. I love you, Michael.
GOODWYN: This note, left on the couple's bathroom mirror, turned out to be Michael Morton's doom. Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson used it to weave a sensational tale of unspeakable violence. In Anderson's version of the crime, Morton used a wooden club to viciously bludgeon his wife's head because she wouldn't have sex with him. Then, in triumph over her body, he pleasured himself.
The mild-mannered grocery store manager was transformed into a sexually sick, murderous psychopath. It was all a prosecutorial fantasy; none of it was true. But Anderson pounded his fists into his hands, and wept to the jury, as he described Morton's perversity. Compared to this vivid picture of the crime, Morton's defense didn't have a lot to offer. Bill Allison is a criminal law professor at the University of Texas but in 1986, he was Michael Morton's lawyer.
BILL ALLISON: The defense was that Michael didn't do it, and we don't know who did it. But whoever did it snuck in and committed a really vicious, vicious murder. And that is very frightening. A jury, by convicting Michael, makes themselves safe. They've solved the case, and they can go on about their business.
GOODWYN: But what the jury didn't know, what the defense lawyers didn't know - in fact, what nobody but the sheriff's office and the district attorney knew about was the evidence that was being concealed by Williamson County law enforcement.
JOHN RALEY: There were fingerprints on the sliding glass door, and there were fingerprints on the luggage that was piled on Christine Morton's body.
GOODWYN: For the last eight years John Raley, of Houston's Raley and Bowick, has spent thousands of hours pro bono as Michael Morton's lawyer. Raley says there were unknown fingerprints - a man's - on the sliding glass door at the back of the house, and on a suitcase that was thrown on top of Christine's head after she was murdered. And that's not all. A neighbor told police that she'd seen a man in a green van, casing the Morton home repeatedly.
RALEY: The neighbors' report that they had seen a strange van driving around the neighborhood, stopping around the Morton house - the man in the van would drive around back, to the wooded area, and walk into the wooded area in back. The interesting thing is, it's around that area where the bandana that contains the DNA was eventually found.
GOODWYN: A bloody bandana was found, by a deputy, behind the Morton home. But incredibly, the sheriff's office decided to ignore it, and left it lying on the ground. Morton's lawyer, John Raley, says the evidence trail got even hotter.
RALEY: On August 15, 1986, the Williamson County Sheriff's Office was contacted by San Antonio police, regarding an attempted use of Christine's credit card at a place called the Jewel Box in San Antonio, Texas. It was used under fraudulent circumstances.
GOODWYN: This information should have had Williamson County investigators scrambling to San Antonio. After all, Christine Morton's purse had been stolen. This was possible evidence of capital murder, since murdering in the commission of another crime brings the possibility of the death penalty.
But the Williamson County Sheriff's Department never even bothered to return the San Antonio Police Department's call. In a note found 25 years later in the sheriff's file, a deputy mocked the tip, writing: Of course, we know better.
This determined avoidance of inconvenient evidence was complete the next day when Eric, who was almost 4, privately told Christine's mother what happened that morning of the murder. Eric told his grandmother that a monster came into the house. The monster was big and angry; that he hurt Mommy; that Mommy was crying.
RALEY: And described it in vivid detail. And then he said Mommy stopped crying. Wake up, Mommy. And he said the monster was mad. He put a suitcase on Mommy, a blue suitcase - which is, of course, exactly the way they found her.
GOODWYN: Shaken, Rita Kirkpatrick asked Eric if his daddy had been there when this happened. The boy replied, quote, "No, just Mommy and Eric was there. Kirkpatrick believed her grandson completely. His details were horrifyingly accurate. She called the sheriff's department about her conversation and told them: You need to get off this domestic violence thing. There is a monster out there.
But the deputy told Christine's mother not to tell anyone else about her conservation with Eric and to keep Eric quiet, too. From the tip about the credit card to the man in the green van behind the Morton house, to Eric's eyewitness account of his mother's murder - all of this evidence was withheld from both the judge in the case and defense attorneys.
And so Michael Morton didn't get to see Eric grow up. When Eric was 12, he stopped seeing his father in prison and when Eric was 18, he changed his last name from Morton. That broke his father's spirit. Fourteen years into a life sentence, Michael Morton hit absolute bottom.
MORTON: The things that I was hanging on to in the world - and he was it. When that was gone, I just cratered. When you are completely without hope, when you are completely without any avenue of escape, when you're not sure of any reason to go on, I cried out to God. I said, OK, I'm done. I got nothing.
GOODWYN: So how was Michael Morton finally freed? Remember the bloody bandana that was left lying behind the Morton house? Well, Christine's brother found it later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton's requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they'd consider DNA-testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for his crime.
It was when a Texas appeals court finally ordered the bandana DNA-tested last year that law enforcement's arrogance was blown to pieces. After remaining silent for months, former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, now a state judge, held a press conference.
KEN ANDERSON: As district attorney at the time, and as woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to formally apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton, and to every other person who was adversely affected by this verdict.
GOODWYN: Christine's blood was found on that bandana - and that of another man, Mark Alan Norwood. Norwood has a long criminal record, including assault. The other bombshell occurred when the appeals court ordered the D.A.'s and sheriff's files opened completely. The exculpatory evidence found there stunned Texas legal circles.
Anderson says he's not to blame.
ANDERSON: There have been a number of allegations made about professional conduct by the prosecutors, including me, in this case. In my heart, I know there was no misconduct whatsoever.
GOODWYN: For one thing, Anderson's lawyer, Eric Nichols, disputes the newly discovered evidence would have made any difference to the jury if they had known. He also claims there was no duty for Anderson to disclose the evidence, either to the judge or defense attorneys.
ERIC NICHOLS: The plain fact of the matter is, though, that the law in 1986, 1987, did not require that, that the reports themselves be disclosed. And Judge Anderson has testified that these are the types of things that he would routinely discuss with defense counsel, even though there was no legal requirement to turn over those reports.
GOODWYN: Anderson is not claiming that he did, in fact, reveal this evidence. His official position is that he can't remember.
After Mark Alan Norwood's DNA was identified on the bandana, Innocence Project staff began looking for other murders like Christine's in Austin. And they found one. A little more than a year after Christine was murdered, in a nearby neighborhood, another young Austin mother, Debra Baker, was also savagely bludgeoned in her home with a wooden club.
Austin police then compared the stored DNA found at Debra Baker's murder scene to Norwood's DNA - and it matched. In 1988, Debra Baker left behind a grieving husband and not one but two, little children. Twenty-three years later, Phillip Baker and their grown children are trying to come to grips with the new and unhappy thought that their wife and mother didn't have to die after all.
PHILLIP BAKER: We all got pretty angry when we began to discover that they probably could have found this guy in '86, had they looked. But instead, Ken Anderson simply focused on Mike Morton. We're all extremely angry at him.
GOODWYN: Bound together by their wives' murders, their alleged killer, and the disastrous fallout from the Williamson County investigation, Phillip Baker and Michael Morton have become colleagues.
For the last 24 years, Phillip Baker considered himself terribly unlucky. His wife was murdered, and the murderer got away. Now, he knows better.
BAKER: I stand next to Mike up in that courtroom; I told him - I said, you know, your exoneration was the first time it ever dawned on me that I could have been the one they arrested.
GOODWYN: Baker's faith is shaken. Michael Morton, on the other hand, is further down the road. He's had 25 years in prison to get perspective on then-district attorney, now state judge Ken Anderson.
MORTON: I don't want his head on a stick. I don't want him to go to prison forever and a day. What I want to do is, do what I can to see that this doesn't happen to anybody else.
GOODWYN: At Morton's request, the Texas Supreme Court has appointed a Court of Inquiry to investigate whether the former district attorney broke the law when he allegedly withheld exculpatory evidence.
But beyond Anderson's fate, Michael Morton wants new Texas legislation. If a Texas district attorney is found to have withheld exculpatory evidence in a case, that prosecutor would be subject to a stiff fine, and loss of law license. Morton believes that simple step would solve the problem; that no prosecutor would suppress evidence to put a suspect in prison if it meant not only risking his job, but his livelihood, if he were caught.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
SIMON: In Michael Morton's darkest moments, he says he had an intense emotional experience. And you can hear about it on our website, npr.org.
You're listening WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.