Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A life stolen

I can't get this story out of my mind:
The next day, it was all taken away. The dream became a nightmare.

Christine, his wife, was attacked and killed at their home in Williamson County, Texas, just outside Austin. Michael Morton was at work at the time. Still, authorities suspected him.

"Innocent people think that if you just tell the truth then you've got nothing to fear from the police," Morton says now. "If you just stick to it that the system will work, it'll all come to light, everything will be fine."

Instead, Morton was charged, ripped away from his boy, and put on trial. The prosecutor, speaking to the jury in emotional terms with tears streaming down his face, laid out a graphic, depraved sexual scenario, accusing Morton of bludgeoning his wife for refusing to have sex on his birthday.

"There was no scientific evidence, there was no eyewitness, there was no murder weapon, there was no believable motive," Morton says. "... I didn't see how any rational, thinking person would say that's enough for a guilty verdict."
But with no other suspects, the jury convicted him. "We all felt so strongly that this was justice for Christine and that we were doing the right thing," says Mark Landrum, who was the jury foreman.

Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison.
But Michael Morton wasn't guilty.  And his conviction was a travesty of justice:
A few years ago, a group of attorneys, working pro bono on Morton's behalf, managed to bring the truth to light. Not only was Morton innocent, but the prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was accused of withholding crucial evidence. 

The little boy, Eric, had seen the attack and told relatives that daddy was not home at the time. He described the man who did it. Neighbors had described a man parking a green van behind the Mortons' house and walking off into a wooded area. A blood-stained bandana was found nearby. None of that evidence made it into the trial.

It took years of fighting, but Morton's attorneys finally got the bandana tested for DNA. It contained Christine Morton's blood and hair and the DNA of another man -- a convicted felon named Mark Norwood.

Norwood had killed Christine Morton. And since no one figured that out after her death, he remained free. He killed another woman in the Austin area, Debra Baker, in similar circumstances less than two years later, authorities say.

Norwood has now been convicted in Morton's killing, and indicted in Baker's killing.
Morton was freed in October 2011. He was 57 years old. "I thank God this wasn't a capital case," he said. [Emphasis added--E.M.]

I think we should all be thankful that Morton's case wasn't a capital case, that he wasn't executed as his wife's killer before the truth could be revealed.  I also think it is quite probable that an innocent person (at least one) has been executed for a crime in our modern state, and that we may never find out about it if so.

But as thankful as Michael Morton is that he has been cleared and released, the truth is that twenty-five years of his life was stolen from him.  His chance to raise his son was stolen from him.  His chance to live as a free man and even to grieve properly for his wife's murder was taken away by the zeal of a prosecutor who hid crucial evidence that could have cleared him shortly after the murder.

One of the reasons I've become convinced that the death penalty, while not an intrinsic evil like abortion or torture, is still something Catholics today ought generally to oppose is precisely because of cases like this one.  Prosecutors can be wrong.  Evidence can be concealed or even falsified if the pressure to produce a conviction is strong enough.  Innocent people can be framed by the guilty. 

In time the truth may be known.  But when it takes twenty-five years for a man who wasn't even at home at the time his wife was killed to clear his name and be restored to his family, we ought to be wary of advocating for the execution of convicted criminals.

UPDATE: A reader shares the awful sequel to this story: the prosecutor convicted of concealing evidence was sentenced to ten days in jail.  And served five.  Five days, for stealing a man's life from him.  Words fail.