"Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a new TV special on the Michael Morton case, got an ecstatic reception from a packed house of criminal justice advocates – many of them public officials – at its Austin Film Society premiere on Sept. 28.
As retold appropriate detail by director Dan Johnstone in this episode of Investigation Discovery's Detective Diaries the Morton story is a textbook example of corrupt prosecutors hiding evidence to send the wrong man to prison, then doing everything in their power to cover up the misconduct.
Michael Morton’s wife, Christine, was found bludgeoned to death in their North Austin home on the morning of August 13, 1986. Within six months, Williamson County officials had convicted Morton of the murder – with no direct evidence of his guilt. He sat in prison on a life sentence for seventeen years before attorney John Raley took the case in 2004 at the behest of the newly formed Innocence Project, a New York-based group that uses DNA evidence to win the freedom of the wrongly convicted.
Johnstone’s documentary is told through the eyes of the charismatic Raley, who had no experience in criminal cases before taking on Morton’s case for free. Convinced of his client’s innocence after meeting him in prison, Raley embarked on a seven-year quest to get a bloody bandana found near the crime scene tested for DNA. Then-Williamson County district attorney John Bradley opposed him every step of the way, saying at one point that testing the bandana would “muddy the waters.” The documentary details a confrontation between Raley and Bradley, with Raley yelling, “What are you afraid of?” Raley concludes that Bradley was more concerned about the reputation of his office than justice: “He was afraid of the truth.”
When a court finally authorized the testing of the bandana it implicated another man, Mark Norwood, who was arrested in Bastrop. Further testing revealed that because Williamson County officials had focused on the wrong man in 1986, Norwood had been free to kill again. In 2016, he was found guilty of the strikingly similar murder of Debra Baker, killed 16 months after Christine Morton. The Baker case had gone unsolved for two decades.
Debra Baker’s daughter, Caitlin, was in the audience for the premiere, as was Michael Morton himself, released from prison in 2011 after 25 years behind bars. When the film concluded, Richard Linklater – who proved to be well informed on criminal justice matters – moderated a Q&A with Raley and Johnstone that lasted over an hour. By the end, the audience was quite enamored of Raley and showed no signs of fatigue. Nonetheless, Linklater called for one last question.
“Have you ever considered running for office?” a man asked. “Don’t take the pay cut!” Morton called from the second row. Raley admitted that he’d prayed on the issue but was undecided. “You’re going to need a campaign video,” Johnstone said, offering his services, which prompted Linklater to offer his as well. “Well, I’ll hold the boom then,” Johnstone replied.
“Guilty Until Proven Innocent” airs Oct. 4, 8pm central on Investigation Discovery. It and another four episodes in the Detective Diaries series can be streamed anytime on discovery+, beginning October 26.
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