WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) - Patricia Stapleton has been waiting 29 years, three weeks and 11 days to find peace.
Frail and in her 70s - and grieving a crime committed nearly three decades ago - Stapleton wants justice to be served before her own life runs out.
A set of attorneys are trying and solve the haunting murder of her elderly mother by scrutinizing the slaying of a young woman who lived nearby - whose husband has been convicted of killing her, and who maintains his innocence.
They believe that by finding a link between the two, both Stapleton and the husband will find justice.
A shocking crime
Her hands shake and her voice quivers when she remembers the morning of Nov. 4, 1980. Stapleton and her husband had just voted in the presidential election and stopped by to check on her 73-year-old mother, Mildred McKinney.
McKinney lived alone in a Williamson County duplex near the corner of Sherbourne and Anderson Mill Road. Stapleton knocked on the door, but nobody answered. She walked around to the back and saw her mother’s car in the garage.
She knew something was wrong when she saw the phone lines cut. She went in through an unlocked door and walked into a terrifying scene.
“I started looking around the house and I got to the bedroom, and I could see my mother’s legs hanging out from the bathroom," Stapleton said. "She was half in and half out.”
The wall and ceiling were covered in blood. A chair, end table and vacuum cleaner were stacked on her mother’s lifeless body. She had been raped and beaten to death.
The newspaper clippings Stapleton has kept for nearly three decades are yellowed with age. They tell of the neighbors' fear and of the case slowly growing cold.
In 1984, authorities announced a break in the case: A man named Otis Toole confessed to the murder.
“But that didn’t last very long,” says Stapleton. “He hadn’t done it.”
Otis Tool and his partner in crime, Henry Lee Lucas, confessed to hundreds of murders. The Texas Attorney General conducted an investigation into the duo’s claims and found that Lucas and Toole were not in Texas at the time and could not have committed Mildred McKinney’s murder.
It was a devastating blow to Stapleton. Since then, she has been waiting and praying for her mother’s killer to be brought to justice.
At the time, there was no DNA testing available. That technology did not come around until the 1990s.
In early 2008, an attorney with a special mission contacted her.
John Raley, a civil attorney with the Houston law firm of Raley & Bowick, was working without pay on behalf of the Innocence Project - a program that tries to get innocent people out of prison.
Raley had noticed similarities between her mother’s murder and one that happened six years later, half-a-mile away.
“I was thrilled that somebody was interested in it,” said Stapleton.
Stapleton knew exactly what they were talking about. She had saved the newspaper clippings for the 1986 murder of a young mother named Christine Morton.
( Ed note: Below is the original story as published. However, Michael Morton was released from prison in October 2011 after DNA evidence testing of a bloody bandanna found near the Christine Morton murder scene was shown to belong to Mark Norwood , now in jail awaiting trial for her murder. See related sidebar stories on this page.)
A young mother murdered
Christine and Michael Morton met as students at Stephen F. Austin University. They began dating in 1974 and married in 1979. They moved to Austin where Michael went to work for a grocery store. Christine worked for an insurance company.
Soon after, their only son Eric was born. In 1985, the family bought a new home in a new subdivision near Anderson Mill Road. Christine planted flowers in the front yard; Michael added on a new deck in the back.
On Aug. 12, 1986, Michael, Christine and then 3-year-old Eric celebrated Michael’s 32nd birthday at City Grill, a popular, upscale Austin restaurant. The couple came home, watched TV, then, put their son to bed. The two watched an erotic movie they had chosen together, planning a night of passion. Michael began rubbing Christine’s hand - but Christine fell asleep.
Morton said he felt hurt and unwanted and went to bed alone. He said she later came to bed, kissed him and said, “Tomorrow tonight.” He said they went to sleep.
According to court papers, Morton said he awoke the next morning, dressed and left for work at 5:30 a.m. He clocked in for work and then later clocked out, ran some errands and stopped by the daycare center to pick up his son.
He was told the boy and his mother never showed up, nor called. Morton immediately called home. The Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell answered the phone and told Morton he needed to come home.
Ten minutes later, Morton arrived to find a crime scene.
“Is my little boy okay?” Morton asked the sheriff.
When the sheriff said “Yes.” Morton asked, “How’s my wife?”
The sheriff told him she was dead. Morton then asked if it was murder.
It was: Christine had been beaten to death.
Earlier that day, just after noon, a neighbor had noticed little Eric wandering alone outside. She went into the house and found Christine’s lifeless body in the bed covered with a pillow and a heavy quilt.
A suitcase and wicker laundry basket was stacked on top. The neighbor felt for a pulse, but found none. She called police.
They found a bedroom covered in blood. According to authorities, blood was found on the door leading to the master bathroom, on the bed, the wall, and on family photographs in the room.
But, authorities said, there was no blood found anywhere outside of the master bedroom. There was no sign of forced entry into the Morton’s home and only two items were missing: Christine’s purse and a .45 caliber handgun.
Other items of value were undisturbed, including Christine’s jewelry. Police found a note in the master bathroom that read:
“Chris, I know you didn’t mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies, then with your nightgown around your waist and while I was rubbing your hands and arms, you farted and fell asleep. I’m not mad or expecting a big production. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into another fight about sex. Just think how you might have felt if you were left hanging on your birthday. ILY [signed] M”
For the next two hours, the sheriff questioned Morton. Morton cooperated and provided samples of his hair, saliva and blood. He said Christine was in bed asleep when he left the house. He confirmed that he had written the note.
The day of the murder, one officer had searched a home-construction site behind the Morton home and found a bandana on the edge of the curb. The officer thought the bandana had been there for awhile and left it lying on the ground.
The next day, Christine’s brother picked up the bandana and brought it to the Williamson County Sheriff's Department. The DPS Crime Lab tested the bandana and found it contained human blood. A strand of hair was also recovered from the bandana.
Morton’s friends and neighbors gathered at the home and helped clean up the bedroom. His friends brought in a crew to repaint. A week later, his parents arrived to help care for Eric. Morton took a two-week leave of absence from work and then cut back his hours.
Officers continued their investigation.
The medical examiner determined Christine died as a result of being beaten with a blunt object. She suffered a crushed forehead, a two-and-a-half inch gash in her face, a fractured nose and jaw and a displaced tooth. She had a defensive-type wound on one of her fingers. The medical examiner analyzed the contents of her stomach and estimated the time of death to be between 1and 6 a.m.
Six weeks later, authorities arrested and charged Michael Morton with the murder of his wife.
The case went to trial in 1987. Prosecutors told jurors that Morton was in a sex-filled rage when he beat his wife to death. They heard testimony from DPS crime-scene technicians about semen found on the bed sheet and hairs found in Christine’s fist. Prosecutors claimed Morton masturbated on his wife’s corpse, possibly using her hand.
Witnesses testified that Michael repeatedly told Christine that she needed to lose weight, and that he did not believe they had sex often enough.
In Morton's defense, coworkers testified they noticed nothing unusual about his behavior or timing when he got to work early that morning - everything seemed normal. Expert witnesses told jurors that the time of her death could not be determined without question because studying stomach contents was not a reliable method - casting doubt on when she was killed and, according to Morton defense attorneys, bolstering his alibi. And there was no evidence - physical or through testimony - that he had ever been violent toward his wife.
It took jurors only two hours to find Michael Morton guilty of murdering his wife. They sentenced him to life in prison.
Leaving the courthouse after the sentencing, Morton said he was shocked: “I didn’t do this.”
Morton has never wavered from his claim of innocence. He filed appeal after appeal in hopes of finding more evidence to overturn his case.
In 2000, Morton’s attorneys got permission to test the bed sheets. The test results showed the semen stain on the sheets was a mixture of male and female cells. His attorney’s said this contradicts the DPS testimony that the stain contained only male cells and disputes the theory that he masturbated on the corpse.
In 2005, the Innocence Project stepped in to help.
They filed a motion requesting more DNA testing be conducted and more investigation be done in the time of death estimate. They submitted an affidavit from famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, who disputes the method in how the time of death was determined. Prosecutors said this is irrelevant because the medical examiner told jurors
that determining the time of death by analyzing stomach contents was not an exact science. The defense had two expert witnesses testify to the same.
Over the past five years, several items of evidence have been re-tested - including the hairs found in Christine’s hand (two belonged to Christine, one belonged to Michael), Christine’s fingernail clippings and various swabs taken from Christine following her murder.
So far, none of the tests have shown evidence of another intruder.
But his attorneys believe the bloody bandana might hold some clues - and point to other factors that cast doubt on Michael Morton's guilt.
Mainly, Raley said the sliding glass door in the back was unlocked. He believes the killer or killers could have left through that door, climbed over the small fence in the backyard and cut through the construction site where the bloody bandana was found.
“We know there is a footprint right there at that fence line where he would have had to hop the fence," said Raley. "There are unidentified fingerprints on that door."
He said they want to test the DNA on the bandana because “it could contain her blood and the cells of either skin or hair of the murderer.”
But they will have to fight the local district attorney's office to do it. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley is fighting an appeals court decision that would let Morton's attorneys test the bandana. A test on the hair showed that it did not match Christine nor Michael Morton - but the blood has yet to be tested.
The Innocence Project attorneys saw the similarities between the Morton killing and the death of Mildred McKinney six years earlier, less than a mile away - which is what prompted them to contact her daughter, Pat Stapleton.
Morton’s attorneys are asking to test the evidence collected from the McKinney crime scene and compare it to the bloody bandana evidence behind the Morton house.
Stapleton is on board with this idea because, she, too, had noted the similarities when details of the Morton murder were published in the local newspaper.
On her copies of the articles, Stapleton wrote the word “same” next to descriptions of how Christine’s face and skull were beaten with a blunt object. Other similarities noted:
- Both crime scenes had unlocked sliding glass doors
- There were no signs of forced entry
- Unidentified fingerprints were found.
- Unusual household items were stacked on the victims. In McKinney’s murder, a chair, end table and vacuum cleaner. In Morton’s, a wicker laundry basket and a suitcase.
- The murder weapons in both cases were never found.
The attorney representing Stapleton and Morton said there is no reason not to test the evidence and find out if the two cases are related.
The Innocence Project would pay for the tests, and Raley said it could solve one case and help shed some light in the way of new evidence in another.
He argues that the evidence used to convict Morton was circumstantial, and that jurors did not hear about the McKinney murder and the similarities between the two crimes. He believes that would have made a difference in the outcome.
Williamson County DA Bradley disagrees.
He said the recent DNA tests have strengthened the prosecutors case because the DNA found so far belongs to Michael Morton. He also said the DNA and fingerprint evidence has already been compared to the McKinney case and no match has been made.
However, he is willing to stop fighting the DNA bandana test on one condition:
“If I got a promise that from Michael Morton that he would accept criminal responsibility for killing his wife should the bandana exclude any other mystery killer, you know what?" Bradley said. "I would consider doing that.”