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Updated: Thursday, 04 Oct 2012, 9:37 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 04 Oct 2012, 4:01 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - One year ago, Michael Morton greeted the day among prison guards and convicts.
In contrast, dressed smartly in a pressed, sharp black suit, his exuberant smile showed pure joy as he said to an large crowd at the Capitol on Thursday, “Today’s my anniversary. One year ago today I was let out of prison.”
His freedom came 24 years and 7 months to the day after a conviction for the murder of his wife, Christine – a wrongful conviction, as DNA tests would prove years later.
A tanned, fit Morton spoke during the lunch hour at the Capitol Grill to an audience mostly made up of young legislative staffers, some of them attorneys. Many who listened seemed mesmerized by his story as he stressed he was once like them: young, with a wife, mortgage and 3-year-old son.
“I was a statistical cliché,” he said. “We both had jobs. I was living the American Dream. We had goals and plans. There were a lot of people like me.”
What happened to him after the murder of his wife was more of a nightmare. Williamson County prosecutors pursued the case against him, and on March 4, 1987, the prison doors locked behind him.
“I did not expect it – it too could happen to you,” he said, about the bizarre turn of events. “What happened to me could happen to anyone.” He added that it was “like catching the flu,” in that he was just going along during a normal day, heading off to work, young son and wife at home, when he was hit with the unexpected.
His message the past year has been and remains that each person needs to let their legislators know how they feel about the justice system.
“I’m not looking for revolution in the system,” he said, “but small, little tweaks. Right now I’m the ‘flavor of the month.'”
What he meant was that he’s a man the media want to talk to, the guest they want to appear on television and cable shows. Morton was direct in his call to action, asking the audience to speak out to those who can make changes in the law.
“Let them know how you feel. You can act in your own self-interest,” he said. “Do it for yourself because it could happen to you.”
Morton said that for the majority of his years in prison, nothing broke him.
“You can get used to anything,” he said. “I adjusted.”
He was instructed to make the most of his time, and in the process, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in literature. He thrived despite the day-in, day-out routine of the predictable penal system, which he called “grinding, boring and gray.”
“I was a square peg in a round hole,” Morton said. He explained that the programs and counselors are there to help those with serious problems. “I didn’t do drugs – and didn’t need rehab for that; I wasn’t a sex offender, I wasn’t in a gang…I tried to stay out of trouble and get an education. It was a way of escape. Because all of those in prison want to escape, whether intellectually or physically.”
One of the men Morton had gotten to know was found hanged in his cell block within the first few weeks of Morton’s arrival. At the time, Morton asked how a person gets to that point. He was told that if he had one thing to hang onto, he would make it, he would survive the years in prison.
For Morton, that “one thing” was his son.
The court mandated jail visits every six months. He saw the boy grow up. But when the early teen years hit, Morton’s son no longer wanted to visit. Hearing it that day, “I got up and walked out of the room – that visit lasted two minutes,” he said.
When the young man turned 18 years old, Morton was informed by letter that his sister-in-law and husband were adopting Morton’s son.
He had lost his “one thing.”
“That’s what broke me,” Morton explained. “Not even when my son was found to have a congenital heart defect when he was 3 and had open heart surgery, did that break me.
“Then I did something uncharacteristic of me. When I had nothing left, I cried out to God. Nothing happened (immediately). But a couple of weeks later, I figuratively and literally saw the light.”
Morton said his heart changed. Where he had hated and was mentally planning the demise of those who had put him behind bars, “I consciously forgave them, and a weight came off of me. The hate I carried around was killing me, but my perspective changed, and everything changed.”
That son -- now 28, a husband and father of a daughter named after Christine – and Morton have reconciled, and are rebuilding their family.
Evidence revealed in the past year is also shedding light on the apparent faults of prosecutors in the case.
DNA testing of a bloody bandanna found near the scene of Christine Morton’s death was the key to Michael’s release. It has put the focus on Mark Norwood, who will be tried in January in the killing.
But files being examined by the Texas Bar Association and the Innocence Project – those who worked hard to get Morton exonerated -- clearly show evidence was withheld in 1986 and 1987, according to Morton.
“For reasons that haven’t yet been explained to me, the system fought (the release of the evidence), he said. “There is evidence of a green van being behind our house [in the days before Christine’s death], someone was casing the place – and one neighbor [told them] she’d seen the green van and thought she knew who it belonged to.
“More evidence is that my wife’s credit card was used days after her death in San Antonio,” he continued. “Police in San Antonio knew who had used it … the information was buried in the file and never followed up on. The most damning, most frightening were transcripts of the telephone call with my mother-in-law. My son had said he witnessed the murder – he was just 3 and he doesn’t remember it now – and when he was asked if I was there, he said, ‘No, just Mommy.’”
Twenty-five years is a long time to be deprived of freedom, and Morton said he is enjoying every bit of it – including the wearing of comfortable clothes, enjoying the tactile senses. He told the crowd to “embrace” those sensations.
“You need to appreciate stuff – it’s part of being human and free,” he said. “In one night, I went from a world of concrete and steel, to marble floors and carpet, with gold fixtures in the bathroom,” he said of his first night in a hotel the day he was released. “I spent hours walking between the marble floor and the carpet. It was the first time I took a shower alone in 24 years. It was all wonderfully shocking.”
Morton said he likes spending time alone these days, when he can – something he couldn’t do while locked up.
“I like going for drives in my car, the windows open and breeze blowing -- through what little hair I have left -- and the music turned up loud,” he said. “I spent so much time with a lot of people, I like being alone.”
He said he also enjoys being in the company of women – not in a carnal sense, not in the wrong way, he explained. But for the way women “complement” a man – the way they think, the way they are, the way they smell.
“They’re like enjoying the strawberries that I didn’t get to have for a very, very long time,” he said.
In the end, Morton knows that nothing that happens with the case and trial of Norwood – the man whose DNA was found on that bloody bandanna – from here on out will replace what he lost.
“It’s not going to bring my wife back, not give me back the 25 years, it’s not going to give me the years my son was a Cub Scout, or seeing him graduate from high school,” he said.
What Morton hopes, however, is that others will speak out, help to effect change that will prevent wrongful imprisonment happen to anyone else as it happened to him.
To make it easy, a link on the website www.michael-morton.com allows people to contact their legislators, and speak out for legislative changes Morton hopes will one day come.
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