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DNA Evidence Clears Morton of Murder Conviction

Georgetown man was wrongfully convicted for wife's murder

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Oct. 7, 2011

Michael Morton (center) in October 2010, with parents Pat and Bill Morton
Michael Morton (center) in October 2010, with parents Pat and Bill Morton
Photo courtesy of The Innocence Project

Michael Morton walked out of prison a free man Oct. 4, after Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley agreed with Morton's defense counsel and the Innocence Project that DNA evidence proves Morton was not responsible for the 1986 slaying of his wife, Christine, who was bludgeoned to death in the couple's Georgetown home. Attorneys told Judge Sid Harle on Oct. 3 that they had agreed to a set of findings-of-fact that rest on Morton's innocence; those findings will now be forwarded to the Court of Criminal Appeals for approval, and if the highest court signs off, Morton would be eligible for state compensation set aside for the wrongfully convicted.

Although prosecutors had said Morton was guilty – that he'd killed his wife after she refused to have sex with him on his birthday – DNA evidence found on a bandana not far from the crime scene points to another man, whose identity has not been made public but who has a felony record. The man's DNA was found mingled with Christine Morton's on the bandana.

As it turns out, the unidentified man has also been linked to the 1988 murder of Debra Jan Baker in Austin, who also was bludgeoned to death in her home. That case remains open and unsolved, though the link to the Morton case – involving hair evidence found at the Baker crime scene – is what prompted the decision to release Morton, after Travis County prosecutors last week made available to the Williamson County court a two-page file on the Baker killing. The contents of that file remain under seal. According to the Statesman's Chuck Lindell, Bradley described the link between the Morton and Baker murders as a "lightning strike moment" that prompted him to cooperate with the Inno­cence Project and support Morton's release from prison after nearly 25 years, a turnaround from his office's previous stance that the DNA found on the bandana wasn't compelling enough to free Morton.

In addition to claiming innocence, Morton has also raised serious questions about the role the Williamson County District Attorney's and Sheriff's offices played in his wrongful conviction; in an earlier court filing, Morton's lawyers argue that both agencies hid evidence crucial to the defense. Those claims have not been dismissed as part of the findings regarding Morton's innocence.

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