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Commentary: When the wrong guy is imprisoned

by on July 07, 2014 10:30 AM

On the day after his 32nd birthday, Michael Morton returned from work to find his home in Austin, Texas, surrounded by yellow police tape.

Morton jumped out of his car and raced to the door. “Is Eric OK?” Morton asked, thinking that something might have happened to his 3-year-old son. The sheriff said Eric was fine.

What about Chris, Morton’s wife?

“Chris is dead,” the sheriff answered.

Morton reeled after learning that Chris had been bludgeoned in their bed, and then the police arrested him for the murder.

Eric had told his grandma that he actually saw a “monster with the big mustache” hit his mother, but police suppressed this and other evidence. The jury deliberated two hours before convicting Morton of murder in 1987, and he received a sentence of life in prison.

“It seemed as if the word guilty was still ringing through the courtroom when I felt the cold steel of the cuffs close on my wrists — a sensation that in the next quarter-century would become as familiar as wearing a wristwatch,” Morton writes in a stunning memoir to be published Tuesday.

TURNED ON HIM

Chris’ family turned on him, assuming him to be the killer. Eric was raised by Chris’ sister and her husband, and Eric eventually changed his name to match theirs. At age 15, he wrote his dad to say he would stop visiting him.

“I crumpled onto the bunk and just lay there,” Morton writes, “clenching and unclenching my fists, feeling hot tears forming and then falling, clutching the letter to my chest as if I were trying to squeeze all the hurt out of it.”

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’ brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’ DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history.

What’s more, Norwood’s DNA was also found at the scene of a murder very similar to Chris’ — that of a young woman with a 3-year-old child, also beaten to death in her bed, just 18 months after Chris’ murder.

“The worst fact about my being convicted of Chris’ murder wasn’t my long sentence,” Morton writes. “It was the fact that the real killer had been free to take another life.”

With the DNA evidence, the courts released Morton, after 25 years in prison, and then soon convicted Norwood of Chris’ murder. Ken Anderson, who had prosecuted Morton and later became a judge, resigned and served a brief jail term for misconduct.

As for Morton, he’s rebuilding his life. He and Eric have come together again, and he is happily married to a woman he met at church.

“Life’s good now, even on my bad days,” Morton told me, laughing. “Perspective is everything.”

Morton has a measured view of lessons learned. Most of the people he met in prison belonged there, he says, but the criminal justice system is also wrongly clogged with people who are mentally ill. As for complete miscarriages of justice like his own, he figures they are rare but still more common than we would like to think.

PROFOUNDLY FLAWED

My take is that our criminal justice system is profoundly flawed. It is the default mental health system, sometimes criminalizing psychiatric disorders. It is arbitrary, and the mass incarceration experiment since the 1970s has been hugely expensive and grossly unfair. Prisons are unnecessarily violent, with some states refusing to take steps to reduce prison rape because they say these would be costly. And the system sometimes seems aimed as much at creating revenue for for-profit prisons as at delivering justice.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Michael Morton is able to deliver this aching and poignant look at the criminal justice system only because he didn’t get a death sentence. When Morton was finally freed from prison, some of his first words were: “Thank God this wasn’t a capital case.”



Nicholas Kristof writes a column for the New York Times. Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com /NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.
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