Prosecution Withheld Critical Evidence That If Properly Investigated May Have Prevented a Second Murder
Contact: Paul Cates, 212/364-5346, [email protected]
(Austin, TX – October 4, 2011) Michael Morton walked out of a Williamson County courtroom today after his 1987 murder conviction was overturned because of new DNA evidence pointing to another man. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley joined with the Innocence Project in seeking Morton’s release after it was discovered that the DNA of an unnamed male linked to the Morton crime through a bandana that also contained the blood of the victim was also found at the scene of a later murder in Travis County. The unnamed male is now under investigation for both crimes. Morton served nearly 25 years in prison before being released.
“Mr. Morton was the victim of serious prosecutorial misconduct that caused him to lose 25 years of his life and completely ripped apart his family. Perhaps even more tragically, we now know that another murder might have been prevented if law enforcement had continued its investigation rather than building a false case against Mr. Morton,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This tragic miscarriage of justice must be fully investigated and steps must be taken to hold police and prosecutors accountable.”
In August, the Innocence Project announced that DNA testing on a bandana found near the Morton’s home where the murder occurred contained the blood of the victim, Christine Morton, and a male other than Morton. According to the papers filed by the Innocence Project yesterday, new DNA testing has connected the male DNA on the bandana to a hair that was found at the crime scene of a Travis County murder that was conducted with a similar modus operandi after Morton was incarcerated. Morton always maintained that the murder was committed by a third-party intruder.
In the filing, the Innocence Project charges that Morton would never have been convicted of the crime if the prosecution had turned over as required evidence pointing to his innocence. Newly discovered evidence that was uncovered through a Public Records Act request that was not given to the defense includes:
• A transcript of a taped interview by the chief investigator, Sgt. Don Wood, with the victim’s mother where the mother says that the couple’s three-year-old child witnessed the murder and provided a chilling account of watching a man who was not his father beat Christine to death.
• A handwritten telephone message to Williamson County Sherriff’s Office (WCSO) Sgt. Wood dated two days after the murder reporting that what appeared to be Christine Morton’s missing Visa card was recovered at the Jewel Box store in San Antonio, with a note indicating that a police officer in San Antonio would be able to identify the woman who attempted to use the card.
• A report by WCSO officer Traylor that a neighbor had “on several occasions observed a male park a green van on the street behind [the Morton’s] address, then the subject would get out and walk into the wooded area off the road.”
• An internal, typewritten WCSO message to Sgt. Wood and follow up correspondence reporting that a check made out to Christine Morton by a man named John B. Cross was cashed with Christine’s forged signature nine days after her murder.
“The prosecution’s complete disregard for the truth in this case is stunning,” said Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “Rather than try to get to the bottom of what really happened, the prosecution went to great lengths to keep evidence pointing to Mr. Morton’s innocence from his lawyers, blatantly ignoring direct orders from the judge who conducted a review of the evidence. This case and the other tragic murder that might have been prevented if the leads had been investigated will hopefully spur the Legislature to enact legislation requiring open file discovery in every case.”
All of the newly discovered evidence supports Morton’s insistence that the crime was committed by a third-party intruder who committed the murder for money. Had these leads been investigated, the police may have been able to capture the real perpetrator who it appears went on to commit at least one similar murder in Travis County. During the trial, defense attorneys suspected something was amiss when they learned that prosecutors did not intend to call Sgt. Wood to testify and specifically raised with the court the possibility that information about Morton’s innocence may not have been turned over. The court ordered a review of all the police reports prepared by Sgt. Wood, and the prosecutor made assurances to the court that he would confer with Sgt. Wood to make sure that all documents were turned over for review. On August 26, 2011, the sealed file containing the documents that were given to the trial judge was opened and reviewed by the present court and parties. The exculpatory documents that the Innocence Project received through the Open Records Act were not included in the file reviewed by the trial judge.
Morton has always maintained his innocence of the murder of his wife, Christine, who was found dead in their home by a neighbor the morning of August 13, 1986. At trial, the prosecution argued that Morton beat his wife to death after she refused to have sex with him upon returning from his 32nd birthday celebration at a restaurant. There were no witnesses or physical evidence linking Morton to the crime. The prosecution relied largely on the fact that Morton left a note to Christine on the bathroom vanity expressing his disappointment with the fact that she fell asleep on him. (The note closed with the words “I love you.”) Morton’s co-workers testified that he arrived at work at about 6 a.m. that morning and didn’t notice anything unusual about his behavior.
Download documents from the case:
The writ of habeas corpus cover form
filed by the Innocence Project.
Morton is represented by Scheck and Morrison at the Innocence Project, John Raley with Raley & Bowick in Houston, TX, and Gerry Goldstein and Cynthia Orr with Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley in San Antonio, TX.