Sunday, March 25, 2012

Prosecute the prosecutor who's now a judge!

Michael Morton: Five Months Out

Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for murdering his wife, Christine, until DNA testing proved his innocence and implicated the real perpetrator. Since his December exoneration, the Texas Supreme Court has ordered a Court of Inquiry to determine whether the prosecutor contributed to Morton’s wrongful conviction by concealing evidence of Morton’s innocence from the defense. The case is the subject of an upcoming 60 Minutes piece that will air Sunday, March 25 at 7 p.m. EST.

Once Morton had a chance to reconnect with family and get settled in his new life, the Innocence Project spoke with him about the injustice and how he survived it:

Let’s start by talking about your life before the wrongful conviction.
I’ve often felt how almost excruciatingly average we were, a chunk out of a demographic study: the house, the yard, the kid, the car. We had everything but the picket fence. It was good.

What kinds of activities did you pursue during your years in prison?
I got my BS and MA while I was in prison. I was very fortunate to walk out of there with a Masters in Literature. All the prisoners were hungry to learn, so the professors actually enjoyed coming into the prison. I was most intrigued with Dante’s Divine Comedy. You go to hell, you go to purgatory and you go to heaven. Everybody knows about hell.

Tell us about your experience working with the Innocence Project.
In my eyes, the people at the Innocence Project are saints because of what you do. The lengths to which the attorneys go is just amazing. Nina Morrison moved heaven and earth for me.

At the hearing, one of the court reporters asked Nina: “Honey, could you slow down a little bit? I can’t keep up.” She’s on fire. She’s more than a lawyer; this is her life. But we had some dark days with some blank lab results. Whenever you see one of the exonerations on TV, you must realize that it’s a herculean effort, and you can’t know what is involved unless you’re in it. It takes a small army to do this.

When did the big break come?
When I first got the news of the DNA hit. They told me on my birthday, August 12. It was a long shot thing, a Hail Mary pass. Apparently, the perpetrator had a bandana with him and my wife’s DNA was on it, and his DNA was on it. We’re assuming that either he dropped it, or it fell out of his pocket, or he threw it away. And miracle of miracles, my brother-in-law found it and gave it to the police. It had been sitting there for a quarter century until the Innocence Project got it tested.

How did you feel walking into that courtroom for your exoneration hearing?
I put on free world clothes for the first time in a quarter century. They were just khakis, but they were so soft and comfortable that I got choked up for a moment. The photographers were four deep and they stretched 180 degrees. When I got convicted, I was the boogey man; they hated my guts. Now, it’s the opposite. Some of the reporters were weeping. It’s like night and day. It’s like coming up out of the water.

What is the lesson that you think the criminal justice system should learn from your case?
I don’t want to punish the prosecutor. I’m not asking for incarceration, but if a prosecutor violates the law, just have them liable for a monetary fine and a loss of their license. That would stop this cold. No prosecutor is going to think: should I risk my law license to lock this guy up? We don’t want to upend or revolutionize the system, just make it fair and accountable. Make everybody follow the law.

How do you feel now? How have you been adjusting?
I don’t feel bitter. One of the lawyers told me something the other day: Revenge is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies from it. You can’t have that hate in you. That will kill you.

I’ve been out about five months now. I came out of the gym the other morning, and the sun was just over the horizon and there was orange and purple and a little bit of a breeze that was drying the perspiration on my forehead and it felt so good. I’ve been going to restaurants looking for things I have never eaten. I had crabmeat manicotti recently. It was delicious. My bad days are good.

Michael Morton was freed with the help of the Innocence Project and the law firm of Raley & Bowick and Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley in October 2011 and exonerated by the state on December 19.

For more information about the case, read the Innocence Project’s press release about the exoneration or about the Court of Inquiry.

About the Innocence Project

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992. The project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. As a clinic, law students handle case work while supervised by a team of attorneys and clinic staff.

Most of our clients are poor, forgotten, and have used up all legal avenues for relief. The hope they all have is that biological evidence from their cases still exists and can be subjected to DNA testing. All Innocence Project clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not DNA testing of evidence could prove their claims of innocence. Thousands currently await our evaluation of their cases.

DNA testing has been a major factor in changing the criminal justice system. It has provided scientific proof that our system convicts and sentences innocent people — and that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events. Most importantly, DNA testing has opened a window into wrongful convictions so that we may study the causes and propose remedies that may minimize the chances that more innocent people are convicted.

As forerunners in the field of wrongful convictions, the Innocence Project has grown to become much more than the “court of last resort” for inmates who have exhausted their appeals and their means. We are a founding member of The Innocence Network, a group of law schools, journalism schools and public defender offices across the country that assists inmates trying to prove their innocence whether or not the cases involve biological evidence which can be subjected to DNA testing. We consult with legislators and law enforcement officials on the state, local, and federal level, conduct research and training, produce scholarship and propose a wide range of remedies to prevent wrongful convictions while continuing our work to free innocent inmates through the use of post-conviction DNA testing.

We hope that this site will raise awareness and concern about the failings of our criminal justice system. It is a facet of our society that eventually touches all of its citizens. The prospect of innocents languishing in prison or, worse, being put to death for crimes that they did not commit, should be intolerable to every American, regardless of race, politics, sex, origin, or creed.

Innocence Project
40 Worth Street Suite 701
New York, NY 10013
(212) 364-5340

The Innocence Project is not equipped to handle case applications or inquiries by email or over the phone. All case submissions and follow-up correspondence will be handled by mail or overnight delivery services only. If you are seeking legal assistance, click here to read guidelines for submitting your case.


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