DNA frees man 25 years later
POSTED: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 - 12:47pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 - 1:19pm
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — Michael Morton walked out of the Georgetown, Texas courthouse late Tuesday afternoon a free man after 25 years behind bars.
"It's the best day," said Morton's mother, Patricia Morton, before the hearing began.
She and Michael's father, Bill Morton, waited Tuesday in the courtroom for their son to arrive in court, smiles on their faces.
Morton walked into the courtroom at 3:14 p.m., dressed in a white long-sleeved, open-collar striped shirt, along with attorneys Barry Sheck and Nina Morrison.
They joined attorney John Raley at the defense table.
Morton, his formerly dark hair now a silvery gray, smiled broadly as he waited for the hearing to start.
He read a few documents that his lawyers put before him, the stillness of the room heavy with corraled excitement, as water held behind a dam.
Morton's mother cried quietly as her son entered the room, and the elderly couple waved at him.
At 3:28 p.m., all of the attorneys went with Judge Sid Harle back to the judge's chambers.
At 3:40 p.m., the proceedings started with Raley explaining the current status of the case.
Sheck and Morrison added information before the judge.
Harle was swift in his actions and offered an apology for what Morton had been through, wrongly imprisoned for 25 years, before releasing him to his friends and family.
"I have recommended to the Court of Appeals on count one, to accept my finding," he said. He offered his apologies and said, "You have my sympathy. You have my apologies ... We don't have the greatest system ... it shows ultimately that justice will be served."
"This is new to me, so bear with me," Michael Morton said in an interview with media a few minutes later. "I thank God this wasn't a capital case, that I only had life because it gave these 'saints' here at the Innocence Project to do this ... I know you have a lot you want to ask me, but I can't right now ... colors seem real bright to me now. I will say this, women are real good looking."
Laughter erupted at that last statement.
Morton's mother thanked the attorneys for the work on the case.
"God bless all of the staff that worked so hard for us."
"I can't say anything better than what my wife had to say," said Bill Morton. "We're so thankful the truth came out, and we're so happy, happy, happy."
Raley said that Michael Morton's story needs to be told.
"This is a man I've been honored to serve," Raley said. "I want you to know who he is, and his story needs to be told ... He lost a big part of his life. Almost 25 years."
Morrison added her comments about the case.
"We have serious and important leads," she said, about the case that has not gone cold. She explained that there are counties in Texas that have operated under a policy of open files and information has been shared.
The media was asked not to follow the family and attorneys to dinner, but to let them have privacy.
Harle overturned Morton's murder conviction Monday after new DNA evidence suggests another man is responsible for his wife's beating death in 1986.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley agreed Monday that Morton needed to be released but stopped short of saying he's innocent.
"Innocent is a very specific word, and I am going to say that the evidence right now justifies his reversal," said Bradley. "We have continuing investigative work to do before it would be appropriate for me to express an opinion about that."
Still, Bradley agreed to vacate Morton's conviction, which means to set it aside or void it.
Bradley added that a prosecutor�s job is to see that justice is done. He said sometimes the pros have to be called in to re-examine cases and make sure the defense meets certain standards.
Bradley said this is the type of the newly discovered evidence that warrants vacating a conviction.
Christine Morton was found beaten to death on Aug. 13, 1986, in the couple's Round Rock home. The following year, a jury convicted Michael Morton of killing her and sentenced him to life in prison. He has always maintained his innocence.
In August, a bombshell was revealed in court. New DNA testing on a bloody bandanna discovered near the crime scene found Christine Morton's DNA mixed with the DNA of a known violent offender, someone who is not Michael Morton.
Last week came another revelation in court: that the case may be related to a cold case being investigated in Travis County. Specifics of this case had previously not been revealed due to a gag order issued by the court, but that was lifted on Monday.
However, the suspect's name will not be released. Officials said they believe he committed a later, similar murder in Travis County.
"His record includes extensive drug abuse, burglary of a residence for which he was convicted of a felony, assault, including assault with intent to murder," Raley said of the man who is now suspected of Christine Morton's murder.
NBC33 News conducted an interview with a man here in Louisiana who went through a similar battle. He told us about his struggle after being released. The Innocence Project of New Orleans helped set him free.