Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder in Texas Takes on his Former Prosecutor

Michael Morton describes his life as “starting from square one.” That’s because he was wrongly convicted for his wife’s 1986 murder and it took a quarter of a century for new advances in DNA to exonerate him.

Morton’s case is highlighted in the second installment of the Texas Tribune’s series that looks at how prosecutorial errors have led to wrongful convictions.
Morton describes how he missed his son Eric’s childhood while he was behind bars.

“We’re starting from square one,” he said in the article “Today’s a new day and it’s a new experience and it’s a new life, and you make the best of what you have.”

Sadly errors made by prosecutors appear to be more common that many members of the public believe. As experienced Dallas criminal defense attorneys we are acutely aware of the numerous ways prosecutors can make serious mistakes ranging on a spectrum from carelessness to the blatant withholding of evidence.

When the murder charge against Morton was dismissed in December, it was Texas’ 86th conviction to be overturned since 1989, the Tribune reported.

The claim against prosecutors is a serious one. It’s alleged if the district attorney who prosecuted Morton had turned over all the evidence in his files during the trial 25 years ago, Morton would not have ended up behind bars.

In many of these cases the overturning of a conviction is the end of the matter. But Morton is pursuing criminal charges against Williamson County state district Judge Ken Anderson, the former district attorney who tried his case, according to the Texas Tribune.

He’s also pressing state legislators to implement new laws that hold prosecutors accountable for serious missteps.

‘Prosecutors have long enjoyed relative immunity for mistakes they make in their work. A Texas Tribune examination of 86 overturned convictions between 1989 and 2011 revealed that courts found prosecutor errors in nearly 25 percent of the cases. Most of the errors contributed to the wrong outcome, and the 21 men and women involved in those cases spent a total of more than 270 years in prison before their convictions were overturned,” the Tribune reported.

Actions such as Morton’s are very rare and will be watched with interest.

The article quotes Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins who said “tunnel vision” can be a problem affecting both prosecutors and police officers. He said often police and prosecutors make up their mind about a defendant’s guilt at an early stage and fail to follow leads that undermine their stance.

Even worse than tunnel vision and carelessness is prosecutorial misconduct. In a recent blog we pointed out prosecutorial misconduct is a big problem in Texas and one that’s very hard to address because there are no easy ways to check the power of rogue prosecutors.

A recent study by the Innocence Project found that in at least 91 Texas criminal cases between 2004 and 2008, prosecutors engaged in misconduct. One of the most glaring examples of such bad behavior is hiding evidence that would have proved someone’s innocence. Whose job is it to police the prosecutors? According to the research, it’s no one’s. Not a single Texas prosecutor was held accountable for the misconduct found in the survey.

We hope the case being brought by Michael Morton will stop prosecutors escaping prosecution.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.