I attended the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s (TCDLA) annual Rusty Duncan seminar in San Antonio last week. It’s in the top five of all the seminars I’ve been to in my 34 years as a lawyer. The speakers were all excellent and informative, and the papers are top notch. They saved the best for last, when Michael Morton spoke yesterday morning.
Fittingly, Gerry Goldstein introduced him. Goldstein spent untold thousands of hours, along with John Raley, a Houston civil trial lawyer, fighting the corrupt, vicious powers that ran the Williamson County district attorney’s office under John Bradley, thankfully, the former DA. Goldstein introduced Morton as his “hero,” and it is justified. Here’s the blurb on Amazon for Morton’s soon to be published book:
“He spent twenty-five years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He lost his wife, his son, and his freedom. This is the story of how Michael Morton finally got justice—and a second chance at life.
“On August 13, 1986, just one day after his thirty-second birthday, Michael Morton went to work at his usual time. By the end of the day, his wife Christine had been savagely bludgeoned to death in the couple’s bed—and the Williamson County Sherriff’s office in Texas wasted no time in pinning her murder on Michael, despite an absolute lack of physical evidence. Michael was swiftly sentenced to life in prison for a crime he had not committed.
“He mourned his wife from a prison cell. He lost all contact with their son. Life, as he knew it, was over.
“It would take twenty-five years—and thousands of hours of effort on the part of Michael’s lawyers, including the team at the New York-based Innocence Project—before DNA evidence was brought to light that would ultimately set Michael free. The evidence had been collected only days after the murder—but was never investigated.
“Drawing on his recollections, court transcripts, and more than one thousand pages of personal journals he wrote in prison, Michael recounts the hidden police reports about an unidentified van parked near his house that were never pursued; the treasure trove of evidence, including a bandana with the killer’s DNA on it, that was never introduced in court; the call from a neighboring county reporting the attempted use of his wife’s credit card (a message that was received, recorded, and never returned by local police); and ultimately, how he battled his way through the darkness to become a free man once again.
“Getting Life is an extraordinary story of unfathomable tragedy, grave injustice, and the strength and courage it takes to find forgiveness.”
Now, if I had been framed for murder and spent 25 years in prison, and knew that the murderer of my wife killed at least two more women while I was in prison, I’d be bitter and want to get some payback. From what I saw of Morton, he doesn’t seem to be bitter at all.
He talked about how people with their own agendas tried to use him, particularly the ACLU in California, who invited him to a closed meeting and discussed an unlikely alliance with Libertarians and conservative Republicans to abolish the death penalty. Then they proceeded to mock and ridicule their allies for being ignorant and stupid.
He also said that the prosecutors and police are supposed to be the “good guys,” and that we need them and need to work with them. He described some of his fellow prisoners in TDCJ salivating when they saw on television where there was a county fair or rodeo, saying, “I love those things.” What they meant was, they were good hunting grounds. Or as Morton said, “They know you’ve got cash, and they’re waiting in the parking lot to take it from you.” He also said that someday we may be the victims of crime - your house may be broken into, your wife murdered, or your daughter assaulted.”
Morton worked with a lobbyist to get the “Michael Morton” act passed in the last legislative session. The lobbyist took him around to meet legislators who were against the bill. When they saw him and talked to him - he says some were surprised that he didn’t have a shaved head, fu manchu, and tattoos - and he asked why they opposed the bill, they changed their positions. The bill passed unanimously in both houses.
Morton could be any of us. He appears to be about 5’8’’, medium build, gray hair, and is, of course, white. I don’t know if I could survive a year in prison, much less 25. Nice, white, middle class people don’t get in trouble with the law, right? Morton quoted from the Bible:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The Hill Country defense lawyers were well represented at the conference. Tammy Keener from Fredericksburg and Wallace Ferguson from Boerne put together a nice luncheon and about 20 people showed up. Tammy has done a great job of getting the Hill Country Defense Lawyers Assoc. resurrected. We have some very good lawyers here, both defense and prosecutors, and high quality, fair minded judges too.