"I did not do this," Michael Morton said as he was led away in handcuffs, convicted of murdering his wife in 1987. Hardly anyone believed him. Now, after twenty five years in prison, Morton has been proven right and freed based on DNA tests. Morton and his lawyers say they recently discovered something astonishing: sitting in his prosecutor's file all those years was evidence that could have established Morton's innocence during his trial. Lara Logan reports.
The following script is from "Evidence of Innocence" which aired on March 25, 2012. Lara Logan is the correspondent. Andy Court and Anya Bourg, producers.
It's not every day that a convicted murderer clears his name and then returns to court to argue that his prosecutor should be prosecuted. But that's what happened recently in a high-profile case in Texas that raises broader questions about the power prosecutors have and what happens when they're accused of misusing it. At the center of this story is a man named Michael Morton. He was once an ordinary citizen with a wife, a child, a job, and no criminal record whatsoever. But then he was sent to prison for life.
In 1987 in a very public trial, Michael Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife. As he was led away to prison, he insisted he was innocent.
[Michael Morton: I did not do this.
Reporter: I'm sorry what?
Michael Morton: I did not do this.]
Hardly anyone believed him until last year when he was exonerated by DNA testing. By then, he had spent nearly 25 years of his life behind bars.
Lara Logan: What was it like for you to walk from the court a free man?
Michael Morton: It was so alien at first. It wasn't quite real. We stepped out of the courtroom and it was a beautiful sunny day. The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin. I can just feel like I was just drinking in the sunshine.
Lara Logan: Had you felt it in 25 years?
Michael Morton: I'd felt the sun, but I hadn't felt free sun.
Lara Logan: And free sun feels different?
Michael Morton: It does. It sounds stupid, but it feels different.
His nightmare began on a summer afternoon in 1986 when he came home from work in Austin, Texas and found the sheriff at his house. A neighbor had discovered his 3-year-old son Eric alone in the yard, and his wife Christine bludgeoned to death in the bedroom.
Michael Morton: I didn't really have the opportunity to grieve for her, because it-- everything changed so rapidly away from her to me.
Lara Logan: So were you a suspect from the very first moment?
Michael Morton: Yeah, if-- all the questions were adversarial, accusatory. It became clear to me that the sheriff showed up, looked around, and "Okay, husband did this."
Lara Logan: And not long after that, you were arrested.
Michael Morton: About six weeks, yeah. They literally pulled my son out of my arms 'cause he was screaming for me. And, you know, the little hand is out. And they're be-- he's being pulled away. That was one of the worst parts.
Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson prosecuted Michael Morton. He told the jury Morton killed his wife because she wouldn't have sex with him. There was no murder weapon or direct evidence linking Morton to the crime, but Anderson argued persuasively that Morton was violent and unremorseful.
[Ken Anderson: It got sickening after a while to watch him cry at the wrong times and he seemed only to cry for himself.]
Morton and his original trial lawyers always suspected there was evidence that would have helped establish his innocence, that Anderson wasn't telling them about. But they were never given full access to the police reports in the prosecutor's file. It wasn't until recently, after years of legal wrangling, that lawyers Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison of The Innocence Project, and John Raley, a private attorney in Houston, finally got a look at Anderson's file from the original trial.
John Raley: It was one of those moments where you almost f-- you almost faint. To hold in my hand a copy of a document that the district attorney at the time had and didn't tell anybody about it on the defense side...
Lara Logan: That document would've proved what?
John Raley: Would've proved that Michael Morton is innocent.
He's talking about this police report, in which Christine's mother told investigators that her 3-year-old grandson Eric had witnessed the murder and described to her in detail how he saw a "monster" with a "big moustache" kill his mother.
"He hit mommy," Eric says in the report.
"Was daddy there?" His grandmother asks.
"No, mommy and Eric was there."
There was also this report in which a neighbor described seeing a suspicious man "park a green van on the street" and "walk into the wooded area" behind the Morton home. Barry Scheck says this is precisely the kind of information a prosecutor is legally and ethically obligated to disclose.
Barry Scheck: Sitting in the prosecutor's file and sitting in the sheriff's file there was a set of documents which, if they had been revealed, and the defense had seen them, Michael Morton would have been acquitted.
Ken Anderson went on to be named prosecutor of the year in Texas and since 2002 he's been a district judge in the same court where Michael Morton was convicted. All those years, Morton languished in prison.
Michael Morton: My first cell I could stretch out my arms and before my elbows locked, I was touchin' both walls. And you got two grown men in there. The food's abysmal. You're never alone. The system controls every part of your life.
Lara Logan: Its soul destroying?
Michael Morton: Yeah. It eats at you kind of like a rust.
The one thing he told us that sustained him was the thought of his son. He was allowed to see Eric for two hours, once every six months.
Lara Logan: When he was about 12 or 13 years old, he wrote to you and said he didn't wanna come and see you anymore. Was your heart broken?
Michael Morton: Can't really limit to your heart.
Lara Logan: Everything?
Michael Morton: It's just-- when your child says they no longer want to come see you.
Lara Logan: And then when he turned 18, what did he do?
Michael Morton: I got notice in the mail that he was going to be adopted by my sister-in-law and her husband, both good folks. And he was gonna change his name.
Lara Logan: And what did that do to you?
Michael Morton: That was when I hit rock bottom. That was the end of it. That's when I had nothing left.
What finally gave him back his freedom last fall was DNA evidence. After fighting the district attorney's office for five years, The Innocence Project won permission to do DNA testing on a bloody bandana found near the crime scene. On it, the lab found Christine Morton's blood and the DNA of a known felon, Mark Alan Norwood, who's since been arrested for her murder. His DNA has also been matched to the crime scene of another young woman who was murdered after Christine.
Lara Logan: It's not just that an innocent man was put in jail. It was that a killer went free.
John Raley: Yes. I think Eric described him well, as a monster. They never looked for the monster.
Lara Logan: So just to be clear, from both of you, you believe that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in Michael's case, willfully, deliberately withheld evidence.
Barry Scheck: We believe that there's probable cause to believe that he violated a court order, withheld exculpatory evidence, and violated other laws of the State of Texas.
Lara Logan: So the first thing that anybody wants to know, hearing that is why? Why would he do that?
Barry Scheck: You know I've seen a lot of these cases, and I cannot get inside of his mind. I can just talk generally, that, you know, sometimes people break rules, 'cause they wanna win.
[Anderson presser: I want to formally apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton.]
In his only public statement late last year, Judge Anderson told reporters a mistake had been made but he also said this.
[Anderson presser: In my heart I know there was no misconduct whatsoever.]
Under oath, Anderson has said there's no way he wouldn't have told the defense about those police reports in his file, but he couldn't specifically remember doing so. He wouldn't speak with us, but his lawyer, Eric Nichols, a former deputy attorney general of Texas, told us those reports in his client's file would not have been enough to acquit Michael Morton.
Eric Nichols: To suggest that my client did something wrong or committed a criminal law violation or violated the rules of ethics of the State of Texas or elsewhere is completely unwarranted.
Lara Logan: Well, let me read to you what one of Michael Morton's original defense attorneys says on this subject, Bill White, in his sworn affidavit. He says, "I had absolutely no idea at the time that Eric had made a very specific statement about witnessing the murder in progress." It is clear to me that conscious decisions were made to conceal evidence and/or ignore the truth." In spite of the 25 years that seems to be very clear to me. Is it to you?
Eric Nichols: And it's also clear to my client, that he would've had some discussions with the defense counsel about Eric Morton. The precise details, unfortunately are lost to the sands of time.
Lara Logan: Take him at his word? That's all you're offering?
Eric Nichols: What you're talking about Lara-- We are engaging in speculation about matters that occurred 25 years ago.
In February, a Texas judge agreed with Michael Morton's legal team that there was probable cause to believe Ken Anderson violated the law, and Anderson is now the subject of a special criminal inquiry. That's extremely rare. Studies have shown prosecutors are hardly ever criminally charged or disciplined for serious error or misconduct. And one thing Ken Anderson doesn't have to worry about is being sued for damages by Michael Morton because the Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors have "absolute immunity" from civil lawsuits for their legal work.
Lara Logan: Doctors, lawyers, policemen, there are all kinds of people who do their job with limited immunity or no immunity. It just seems hard to understand why prosecutors have to have a different standard to everybody else.
Eric Nichols: Seeing that justice is done, in many instances, requires very difficult judgments. And to come back behind those prosecutors and second guess them, or sue them would throw a wrench into that system of prosecutors seeking justice.
Lara Logan: I have to say, there's a certain irony in hearing you say it's the job of a prosecutor to seek justice, right? Because in this particular case, that's exactly what Michael Morton did not get.
Eric Nichols: With the benefit of hindsight, with the benefit of DNA test results that came available in 2011, you're absolutely correct. But the legacy of this case, the Morton case, should not be an effort to vilify prosecutors, either my client individually, or all prosecutors in general.
Barry Scheck: Now, I want to make it very, very clear that I don't believe that there's an epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct in this country. On the other hand, it does happen. And this is a very important moment. We've had a whole series of cases in this country that have focused attention on this issue.
Cases like the corruption trial of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. A special investigator found "systemic concealment" of evidence that would have helped the senator's case. In North Carolina, this man spent eight years in prison even though someone else had confessed to the crime. His lawyers say the prosecutor never told them. In Louisiana, this man discovered a few weeks before his scheduled execution that prosecutors hadn't disclosed a blood test that exonerated him.
Michael Morton: If you did those things, if you did the sort of stuff where you were hiding evidence from a homicide investigation, they'd lock you up in a minute.
Lara Logan: That's the first time I've sensed any kind of anger in you.
Michael Morton: I try to be very forgiving. But I'll be honest, not only the actual murderer responsible for this, but the people who put me there, I wanted to get back at 'em. And when I finally let that go and put it away, it's like I dropped 25 pounds. I just felt ahhh.
Michael Morton was recently reunited with his son. He's received nearly $2 million under a Texas law that provides compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted.
Michael Morton: I don't have a lotta things really driving me. But one of the things is, I don't want this to happen to anybody else. Revenge isn't the issue here. Revenge, I know, doesn't work. But accountability works. It's what balances out. It's the equilibrium. It's the social glue in a way. Because if you're not count-- accountable, then you can do anything.
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