Interview originally published here
Michael Morton has written an amazing, moving and inspiring memoir about spending almost 25 years in Texas prisons for being falsely convicted of murdering his wife, Christine Morton. I was so excited when he agreed to let me interview him by email. I do at least 25 author interviews a year, but the two most important and meaningful to me in the last 5 years have been with Morton and movie critic Roger Ebert, both fascinating people.
I have followed the Morton case with interest since moving to Austin about 5 years ago as it was often covered in local news media coverage. It’s not every day that a) A man is released from prison after serving nearly 25 years for a false conviction and b) One reason for the release is the prosecutor, who at the time of Morton’s release was Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, withheld important evidence from the defense.
Not only was Morton released but Anderson was rightly punished for his actions. Morton, in his review, avoids what must have been tempting: namely, using the book to get revenge against Anderson and the county sheriff, whose investigation of the murder was so awful as to be laughable. However,his writing about Anderson’s hearing for misconduct evens things out without being mean as it describes a defensive Anderson hating to answer the kind of tough questions he had asked Morton. It’s a nice bit of poetic justice especially when Anderson had to go to jail for contempt of court for withholding evidence though for only a short period of time.
At one point in his memoir about his challenging life, Morton reveals a detail that makes this whole story even crazier: How did the defense realize there was evidence not shared? During conversations with the jury after conviction, someone from the prosecutor’s office told the jury there was evidence not shared. Despite this admission it still takes more than 20 years for the prosecutors and a judge to test DNA found on a bloody piece of clothing found near the house where she was killed.
Ultimately, the DNA matched Mark Alan Norwood, who was also accused of killing another woman in the same manner: beaten to death in their own beds. Norwood was convicted after a trial in which Morton had to once again look at the photos of the crime.
His case sparked a law with his name on it: The Michael Morton Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. It is set up to ensure the discovery process is more open to remove barriers for getting evidence.
One of the hardest parts of the whole book and Morton’s life is that he and Christine had a child, Eric. Eric told relatives he saw a man other than his dad hurting his mom and this was some of the information the prosecution refused to share with the defense. But Eric was raised by relatives convinced of Morton’s guilt and he eventually believed them so Morton lost the two people he loved the most: his wife and his son. After his dad was released the boy, now a man, has to adjust to the realization that what he thought he knew about his dad was wrong.
One reason the case has received so much attention, with a documentary about his case and his life and a 60 Minutes piece, is that this is just a regular guy with no criminal history, who did nothing wrong but who got caught in the system. It’s a reminder that there ARE innocent people in jail. As Morton said at one point in the book he’s just lucky his was not a capital case because he might not still be around.
Fortunately, groups like the Innocence Project work to find people protesting their innocence and do DNA testing to help them get freed. I’ll end my introduction here with an excerpt from the foreword, written by Barry Scheck, the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project:
“Michael Morton is the innocence movement’s best approximation of Everyman – a self-described average, middle-class guy, living in a Texas suburb with a wife he adored and a three-and-a-half-year-old son, who gets up early to go to work. When he arrives home later that day, he learns his wife has been bludgeoned to death. He has no record, no experience at all with the criminal justice system. No reason to believe he could be suspected or, even worse, convicted of this terrible crime. It’s like being struck by lightning without even knowing there was a storm on the horizon. Unthinkable. Yet from Michael’s story alone, especially the way he tells it, any sane American can will have to conclude that if it could happen to Michael Morton, Everyman, it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”
Scott Butki: How did this book come together? Did you rely a lot on the journals you wrote in prison?
Michael Morton: One of the challenges of writing this book was structuring it to be both interesting and readable, without it feeling contrived. Because it is a memoir, my feelings and memories are important. On the other hand, I wanted it to be accurate. I relied on my journal more than anything. But I also consulted court transcripts, newspaper articles, legal documents, and some of the raw material we collected when making the documentary.
SB: Did you ever think, “If I ever get out of prison I’ll write a book and explain all of this”?
MM: I never dreamed that my life might be a publishable commodity. I kept my journal because I envisioned my son asking about prison, someday. My plan was to drop my 1000+ page journal in his lap. That may not have been too wise, too practical, or very kind (no one likes a mountain of unedited rambling). Nevertheless, that was the ill-conceived plan.
SB: When you told prisoners and prison staff you were innocent did any of them believe you? Did that add to your frustrations?
MM: On those rare occasions when I revealed my situation to someone in prison, I was never sure if they believed me or not. And in the end, I don’t think it mattered if they did. I suppose one of my motivations was simply embracing the human need to share. All prisoners share the horrible food, the institutional clothes, the depressing circumstances, and the odious company. I always took a small amount of comfort when someone inside asked why I was there. They didn’t want to know about my crime. Instead, the obvious implication was that I looked and behaved nothing like a felon. It was a shame that a mere prisoner could see what the entire criminal justice system could not.
SB: You write with clear emotion about how your son never really got to know you and you two drifted apart because you were in prison for most of his life. Have you two been able to rekindle a relationship since your release?
MM: The rebirth or reinvention of the relationship my son and I share has been uneven. At first, it felt forced. Then, it waned. After that, it started anew. I guess the most honest statement would be that the trajectory of our relationship has been “organic.” It’s probably closer to normal now than ever. And just like so-called normal father/son relationships, we take two steps forward and one step back. A lot of people want us to be attached at the hip. But we live in different cities, hundreds of miles apart. We see each other semi regularly. He is a young man with a wife, two very small children, a budding career, and mortgage. I remember what that’s like. So, I just smile and schedule visits when it fits both of our lives.
SB: Did you think you would ever get out? Did you ever reach a point where you gave up on that happening?
MM: For whatever reason — call it optimism or delusion — I always figured I’d get out. I didn’t know how and sure didn’t know when. I just couldn’t accept that such a monumental injustice would last. There were, of course, good days and bad. Who am I kidding? There were good years and bad. But I believe that, in the end, good triumphs over evil. I believe in a universe that makes sense. I know that God is sovereign and that our lives have purpose. Without that belief, we would end up like Nietzsche, alone and insane. SB: How do you feel about Barry Scheck and others using you as an example of an everyman who gets arrested and imprisoned despite being innocent? Put simpler how do you feel about being put in that role?
MM: To be blunt, I DIDN’T LIKE IT. But in all candor, I have to admit that it made me who I am. The experience, as distasteful as it was, improved me. It refined me and opened my eyes to what is important and what is not. I now see all of existence in its proper perspective. Nietzsche may have been crazy in the end, but he got one thing right: That which does not kill you makes you stronger.
SB: A lot of people including me, view what happened to you as a reminder that courts make mistakes, sometimes huge ones. Is that one of the lessons you want people to take away from this book? What other lessons do you help it will teach?
MM: Of course the courts make mistakes. They’re filled with human beings. So, our system of justice is no better or worse than the people in it. One of the institutional lessons I hope people take away from what happened to me is the genuine need for “checks and balances.” We should be very, very careful about putting too much power in one person. We should also be as sure as we can be that our procedures are transparent. Everything our government does — especially when it is trying to take away a citizen’s liberty — should be open for examination.
On a more personal level, though, I want people to read my book and see that whatever they’re going through — be it financial, marital, emotional, physical sickness…whatever — is for their good. I know that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow, but I’ve found it to be true. If a person is honest, he or she will be able to look back on their ordeal and recognize that it was exactly what they needed. I also hope people will see what I went through and learn to never, ever give up.
SB: I read that you have forgiven everyone involved in the case. If so how did you manage that? Does that mean you have even forgiven your wife’s real killer?
MM: Yes, I have forgiven those involved with my case. It was a conscious choice. It took a good while, but I learned that keeping that sort of hatred and animus within me was hurting me, not them. When I released all that, it felt as if I’d suddenly lost 20 unwanted pounds. I literally felt better. We’ve all heard that you reap what you sow. It’s true. Doing to other what we want for ourselves is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian/Western Civilization perspective. It is not some arbitrary concept. It’s genuine. It’s good for the individual. And it works out for all of us, in the end. It is a process, though. Take the man who killed my wife, for instance. I am still working on that. I am not there yet. I believe I will get there…but as it said, it’s a process. SB: You said in the book that Jack Anderson saved your journals for you while were in prison. How did that work?
MM: Prisoners have a limited amount of space for personal possessions. So, whenever I would accumulate 10 or 20 pages, I’d mail them to Jack Anderson. Through innumerable moves, at least two marriages, and I’m sure the temptation to unload the scribblings of someone who might never get out, Jack held onto my journal. He is a true friend, a man who does what he says he’ll do. That kind of guy isn’t easy to find.
SB: Was it difficult and/or therapeutic to write this book?
MM: It was both difficult and therapeutic. As you might image, it hurt to go through all those years yet again. But it helped me. I’ve probably saved a ton of money on shrink bills.
I began writing this book as one of many ways to put pressure on the Texas Legislature. However, we got what became known as the Michael Morton Act passed rather quickly. Then, I found that I was obligated to finish the book. So, here we are.