By the time Michael Morton returned to the historic Williamson County Courthouse last year, it had long since been transformed into a museum.
The last time he was there, in 1987, Morton sat in a wooden chair for six days, listening to then-District Attorney Ken Anderson tell a jury that Morton was clearly responsible for the bludgeoning death of his wife, Christine, inside the couple's home just north of Austin the previous year. Morton adamantly maintained he was innocent, but in the end that wasn't enough to convince the jurors, who convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison for the murder. Walking back into that room last year, "the way I felt [back] then came back," Morton says. It's not that it was "haunting," he says, "but so many things have gone on ... and I haven't had time to grieve."
In the years that followed his conviction, Morton learned how to live in prison, and he struggled mightily with loss and with the demons of revenge before DNA testing finally revealed that the DNA of another man, eventually identified as Mark Alan Norwood, was mingled with Christine's blood on a blue bandana found discarded behind the couple's home after the murder. While Morton spent his 30s and 40s behind bars – in the process losing his only child, Eric, who was just 3 at the time of Christine's murder and who grew up believing his father had killed her – Norwood was free, cutting a path of crime across several states that allegedly included the 1988 murder of another young mother in Austin: Debra Baker, also found bludgeoned in her bedroom.
To make matters worse, it appears there was ample evidence available back in 1987 to demonstrate that Morton was innocent and that someone else was responsible. Had law enforcement officials, including Anderson, paid attention to that evidence, it is reasonable to believe not only that Morton would not have been convicted, but also that Baker's life might have been spared. In February, a rare court-of-inquiry proceeding commenced to determine whether Anderson deliberately withheld that evidence – including reports from neighbors that a van had been seen parked behind the Morton's home in the days before the killing and a transcribed phone conversation between Christine's mother and the case's lead investigator, now-retired Sgt. Don Wood of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office, wherein Morton's mother-in-law explained that Eric witnessed the murder and was describing to her the "monster" who did it, a man not his father. Anderson could face criminal charges if the judge considering the case determines that he knowingly withheld any exculpatory evidence.
In May 2012, Morton returned to the historic courtroom to spend two days in a similar wooden chair and share with journalist-turned-filmmaker Al Reinert intimate details of his story, from conviction to his eventual release from prison in the fall of 2011. When Reinert first asked if he'd mind shooting in the old courtroom – the same place where his fate had been sealed a quarter century before – Morton sort of shrugged it off, Reinert recalls.
Indeed, says Morton, he agreed with Reinert that it would be the best location, and he didn't expect it to affect him at all. "Maybe I'm apathetic – or ignorant. I [just] looked around and thought, 'This is the spot.'" But once the filming got going and Morton began to tell his tale, the emotion of the past rose to the surface, Morton says, and caught him off guard.
The result is Reinert's new documentary, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, a revealing account of the personal impact of wrongful conviction. Indeed, Reinert, likely best known for his award-winning 1989 documentary about the Apollo space program, For All Mankind, says he was interested in making a crime-and-justice movie focused not on lawyers and courtroom action, but on how Morton survived as an innocent man in prison. "What was really appealing to me was that this guy spent 25 years in prison and came out of it, not just sane, but, you know, with grace," said Reinert. "What really interested me was ... Michael's personal story. And I really think that's the film that we made."
Indeed, Morton says that Reinert went out of his way to make him comfortable with the process. The finished product is an intensely personal tale of loss, survival, and second chances. In the film, Morton is startlingly honest – as when detailing his obsession with exacting revenge on those he deemed responsible for his plight – and even beatific, describing an in-prison revelation that quite literally turned his life around. "He is the movie," says Reinert. "I'm not telling his story; he's telling his story."
For Morton, making the film was about more than just sharing a personal tale of redemption; it was about showing how very ordinary he is and how corruption in the criminal justice system could make anyone a target of wrongful conviction. "There is nothing between what happened to me and you but the grace of God, the roll of the dice," he says. "I am not trying to acquire fame and fortune – I'm not that kind of guy – but the thing I want to do is whatever I can to keep what happened to me from happening to anyone else."
Reinert says that he hopes that people are as "moved" by Morton's story as much as he has been. And he hopes too that the film might help to influence the debate in Texas – and beyond – on legal reforms that would ensure prosecutors and other law enforcement officials in the criminal justice system are held accountable when they hide evidence of a person's innocence. "I hope it really does help," Reinert says. "It's always nice if the work that you're doing has some ramifications in the real world."
Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Monday, March 11, 7pm, Topfer
Wednesday, March 13, 6:30pm, Alamo Village
Saturday, March 16, 4pm, Topfer
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