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2011

Man who served 25 years for murder exonerated by DNA

On this day in 2011, Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder, is released after DNA evidence implicates another man in the crime. The prosecutor in the case later was accused of withholding evidence indicating that Morton was innocent.

On the afternoon of August 13, 1986, a neighbor found 31-year-old Christine Morton beaten to death in her bed in the Williamson County, Texas, home (near Austin) she shared with Michael, a grocery store manager, and their 3-year-old son. Six weeks later, Morton, who had no criminal record or history of violence, was arrested for Christine’s murder. At trial, the prosecution contended Morton had slain his wife of seven years after she refused to have sex with him on the night of August 12, his 32nd birthday. Morton maintained he had nothing to do with his wife’s death and said an intruder must have killed her after he left for work early on the morning of August 13. No witnesses or physical evidence linked Morton to the crime; nevertheless, he was convicted on February 17, 1987, and sentenced to life behind bars.

In 2005, Morton’s defense team asked the state to test DNA on a variety of items, including a blood-stained bandanna found by police the day after the murder at an abandoned construction site close to the Morton home. The Williamson County district attorney successfully blocked all requests for testing until 2010, when a Texas appeals court ordered that testing on the bandana take place. In the summer of 2011, the test results revealed the bandana contained Christine Morton’s blood and hair, along with the DNA of another man, Mark Alan Norwood, a felon with a long criminal record who worked in the Austin area as a carpet layer at the time of the murder.

Michael Morton was released from prison on October 4, 2011, and officially exonerated in December of that year. A month after Morton was freed, Norwood, 57, was arrested for Christine Morton’s killing. In March 2013, he was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Based on DNA evidence, Norwood also was indicted for killing a second woman, Debra Baker, whose 1988 murder in Austin had remained unsolved. Like Morton, Baker was bludgeoned to death in her bed. She lived just blocks from Norwood at the time of her murder.

In October 2012, after a nearly yearlong investigation, the State Bar of Texas filed a disciplinary petition against Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the Morton case (who became a Texas district judge in 2002), alleging he withheld various pieces of evidence from Morton’s attorneys, including a transcript of an August 1986 taped interview between the case’s lead investigator and Morton’s mother-in-law, in which she stated that Morton’s 3-year-old son had told her in detail about witnessing his mother’s murder and said his father was not home at the time. In a November 2013 deal to settle the charges against him, Anderson agreed to serve 10 days in jail, perform 500 hours of community service, give up his law license and pay a $500 fine.

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