On October 4, in Austin, Texas, 25 years after his wrongful conviction, Michael Morton became a free man again. “It was like coming up out of the water,” he says. “I put on freeworld clothes for the first time in a quarter century... they were so soft and comfortable that I got choked up for a moment.”
DNA testing results of a bloody bandana, which the district attorney had blocked for six years, hit to a convicted felon. “My wife’s DNA was on it, and his DNA was on it. 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.”
The evidence that finally proved Morton’s innocence also provided the key to a cold case — the murder of Debra Masters Baker who died two years after Christine Morton was killed. Baker was survived by two young children. The Mortons had a child as well — a three-year-old son, who had witnessed the assault against his mother.
Through Texas Public Records Act requests, the Innocence Project discovered a suppressed police transcript and other evidence supporting Morton’s claims of innocence. In the transcript, the child’s grandmother reported that he told her the killer was “a monster” and that his father was not at home. Had prosecutors shared this evidence with the defense before the trial, Morton might have been spared wrongful imprisonment and the real perpetrator might have been apprehended. The Texas Supreme Court has ordered a court of inquiry to investigate the possible prosecutorial misconduct.
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“I don’t want to punish the prosecutor,” Morton says, “Just make the prosecutor follow the law.”
Since his release, Morton has been living with his parents, reconnecting with his son, and getting to know his baby granddaughter, born just a few months after his release. He is joyful. “I came out of the gym the other morning and the sun was just over the horizon and it was orange and purple and a little bit of a breeze that was drying the perspiration on my forehead... it felt so good.”
Three thousand prisoners and their advocates write to the Innocence Project each year asking for help. A small percentage of those prisoners become Innocence Project clients and an even smaller percentage are exonerated through DNA testing. But every single one of their cases is carefully considered. Many of them are indigent, have lost all their appeals and have been sapped of the few remaining resources that they have after years of legal battles.
And their fight isn’t over yet — even for those who do become clients. Still, what they have gained is immeasurable: topflight pro bono representation from a legal team that specializes in proving innocence with scientific certainty. Each client is assigned one of six full-time staff attorneys, a paralegal and a law clinic student. Together, the team carries over 200 open cases.
|“I don’t want to punish the prosecutor. Just make the prosecutor follow the law.”|
|– Michael Morton|
As experts in litigating post-conviction DNA cases, the Innocence Project consults on possible wrongful convictions. When important cases relevant to our work come before the courts, the Innocence Project or Innocence Network often weighs in through “friend-of-the-court” briefs. In 2011, we argued to overturn a New Orleans’ conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct, DNA testing for an Alabama death row inmate, the right to effective assistance of counsel in Arizona and more.
Building on the success of this work, the Innocence Project will establish a Strategic Litigation Unit headed by the Joseph Flom Special Counsel, a new position established with a gift from Innocence Project Board Member Jason Flom in memory of his father. The team will harness the judicial system’s authority to set wide-ranging precedents that advance criminal justice reforms.
Whether litigating individual cases for clients with claims of innocence, or engaging the courts to address the causes of wrongful convictions, the Innocence Project fights tirelessly to redress every miscarriage of justice we can find and prevent future injustice. We’re in it for the long haul.
When you read the letters, you realize that every piece of paper represents a human being. It’s not just handwriting on an envelope. When you read: I’m innocent, My mom died, and I couldn’t attend the funeral, I miss my children so much, I’m being abused — it’s not possible to get jaded. It’s not possible to not empathize.
A lot of people who write to us don’t have their documents — trial transcripts, police reports, lab reports — the documents get lost in transit. My job depends on my ability to gain cooperation from police departments, attorneys, forensic labs and court reporters. Just knowing that these prisoners really need assistance keeps me going. Reading their stories and talking to their family members — it just breaks my heart.