To follow up on my diary from a few days ago, there was some talk in the comments about resources being wasted, essentially, on inmates who seem to have no redeeming qualities, for whom certainty about their crimes seems assured. Never mind that the diary was about one of those sorts of prisoners, making the case against executing even them.
This morning, though, I heard of a case from Texas. It would be Texas, sadly, although I wouldn't put it past happening here in Arizona either. Thanks to the authorities involved, you might never have known of the evidence that led to an exoneration. They ignored it, they suppressed it, they mocked it. And twenty-five years later, somehow the innocent man who spent the prime of his life in prison just wants to see legislation passed so this doesn't happen again.
I can't imagine where he finds the will to not seek a more vengeful outcome against the authorities who mocked and taunted and profited from their work, as the DA who put him in prison is now a state judge.
I listened to this story on NPR this morning, and they have a corresponding article on their website. It is well worth the read or a listening-to, as I can only quote so much. This is how Michael Morton was portrayed to the jury by the district attorney, who now makes apologies and denies responsibility and doesn't recall...well, anything that would put any responsibility on him, I suppose.
Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson used it to weave a sensational tale of unspeakable violence. In Anderson's version of the crime, Morton used a wooden club to viciously bludgeon his wife's head because she wouldn't have sex with him. Then, in triumph over her body, he pleasured himself. The mild-mannered pharmacy manager was transformed into a sexually sick, murderous psychopath.And the jury bought it. And the man went to jail for murder. Could well have been put on Death Row, had the circumstances been a little different. Thanks to the pro bono work of Morton's lawyers, however, we know a little more about those circumstances than the jury did. That a man with a green van was seen casing the house and the neighborhood. That there were fingerprints, found and ignored. That a bloody bandanna was found by a deputy and left there. That a credit card of the victim, Morton's wife, was later used in San Antonio. That her purse had been stolen -- oh, but this notion was mocked by the authorities. That Morton's son may have been there and seen the crime happen. Sad, to consider that this man also lost his relationship with his son, who was made to keep quiet.
And so Morton didn't get to see Eric grow up. When Eric was 12, he stopped seeing his father in prison. When he was 18, he changed his last name from Morton. That broke his father's spirit. Fourteen years into his life sentence, Morton hit absolute bottom.It was apparently the bloodied bandanna that was eventually tested for DNA, but only after years. It's hard to imagine being put in this situation. What motive do the DAs have for this sort of demand, to essentially plead guilty in return for a proper investigation? I can think of at least one answer. It's a demand that few innocents would accept. And if they did, it would be that much easier for the authorities to make excuses.
How was Morton finally freed? His wife's brother had found the bloody bandanna the police left later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton's requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they'd consider DNA testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for the crime.The blood exonerated Michael Morton, and indicted someone else, one Mark Norwood. According to the investigation of the Innocence Project, Norwood seems to have perpetrated a similar murder after that of Morton's wife -- putting the authorities in the uncomfortable situation of having let a murderer go kill someone else while they put the wrong man in jail.
So the ex-DA, now judge, Ken Anderson, says he knows he didn't do anything wrong. That he doesn't remember if he did reveal the exculpatory evidence to the defense, but that the law said he had no duty to do so. That's his defense; a technicality. I suppose that may comfort him, if not Michael Morton, or Phillip Baker, the husband of that second victim uncovered by the Innocence Project. Where DNA from the second crime scene matched the bloody bandanna from outside the Mortons' home, the evidence that the police chose to ignore.
So the legislation that Michael Morton wants passed would take the law license away from a prosecutor who withholds exculpatory evidence and gets caught. And he's getting back together with his son. The rest is damage done.
Hopefully, cases like these -- and make no mistake, it's cases, plural, the article cites more than forty exonerations in Texas in the past few years -- may help to explain some measure of distrust that I harbor for the criminal justice system, and why I find it ill suited to hand out the death penalty. People like Michael Morton can at least be exonerated, let out of jail to perhaps enjoy what's left of their lives, perhaps be compensated through lawsuits.
But as much as the authorities may seek to bury evidence in a case like Morton's, it seems obvious that they would work at least as hard to hide a mistake with no take-back, where the victim has been executed. And we've seen some evidence of that in Texas as well, where Rick Perry interfered with the Texas Forensic Science Commission and may have been covering up the execution of an innocent man on his watch.
We have a system of justice where the police may miss or intentionally ignore evidence, where juries may seek the sense of safety a conviction provides, where district attorneys build their careers on putting killers in jail, and where the authorities have an obvious motivation to cover up any mistakes or shortcuts along the way. A system where they may demand a guilty plea in return for something, or for not doing something. Can we trust a system like that with the power of life and death, where you might never know if there's more to the official story?
Sun Apr 29, 2012 at 7:55 AM PT: Thanks for the rescue and the rec - I always appreciate the opportunity to get a good story read by a few more folks.
Just wanted to add, before this diary drops off the spotlight, that Melissa Harris-Perry spent part of her first hour this Sunday morning talking about the death penalty. Hopefully they'll put some video clips online later.