GEORGETOWN, Texas (AP) — A Texas grocery store employee who spent nearly 25 years in prison in his wife's beating death walked free Tuesday after DNA tests showed another man was responsible. His attorneys say prosecutors and investigators kept evidence from the defense that would have helped acquit him at trial.
Michael Morton, 57, was convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to life in prison for the August 1986 killing of his wife, Christine. Morton said he left her and the couple's 3-year-old son to head to work early the morning of the slaying, and maintained through the years that an intruder must have killed her.
Prosecutors had claimed Morton killed his wife in a fit of rage after she wouldn't have sex with him following a dinner celebrating his 32nd birthday.
Wearing a simple button-down shirt and a nervous smile, Morton hugged each of his half-dozen defense attorneys, then hugged his parents after District Judge Sid Harle said he was a free man.
"You do have my sympathies," Harle said. "You have my apologies. ... We do not have a perfect system of justice, but we have the best system of justice in the world."
Addressing reporters moments later, Morton struggled to hold back tears.
"I thank God this wasn't a capital case. That I only had life because it gave these saints here at the Innocence Project time to do this," he said.
Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state. The New York-based Innocence Project, which helped Morton secure his release, specializes in using DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions.
This summer, using techniques that weren't available during Morton's 1987 trial, authorities detected Christine Morton's DNA on a bloody bandana discovered near the Morton home soon after her death, along with that of a convicted felon whose name has not been released.
"Colors seem real bright to me now. Women are real good looking," Morton said with a smile. He then headed to a celebratory dinner with his family and lawyers.
The case in Williamson County, north of Austin, will likely raise more questions about the district attorney, John Bradley, a Gov. Rick Perry appointee whose tenure on the Texas Forensic Science Commission was controversial. Bradley criticized the commission's investigation of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 after being convicted of arson in the deaths of his three children. Some experts have since concluded the forensic science in the case was faulty.
Bradley did not try the original case against Morton. But the Innocence Project has accused him of suppressing evidence that would have helped clear Morton sooner. That evidence — including a transcript of a police interview indicating that Morton's son said the attacker was not his father and that his wife's credit card and personal checks were used after she was killed — was ultimately obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request.
Bradley agreed Morton should be freed after the other man's DNA was tied to a similar slaying in January 1988 — after Morton was already in prison.
Harle signed an agreement Monday recommending that Morton's conviction be overturned. It was passed on to the state Court of Criminal Appeals, which will make the final ruling that could make Morton eligible for state compensation of $80,000 per year he was wrongfully imprisoned — about $2 million total.
Morton is not allowed to leave Texas until the Court of Criminal Appeals rules. Innocence Project co-founder Barry Sheck said that process usually takes at least a month but could take two or three.
Asked if he ever thought he would be released, Morton said, "I prayed for it, and I had faith it would arise."
His lawyers said he couldn't answer more questions about his case because of the pending appeals court decision, and separate court filings charging police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Morton's defense attorney, John Raley, said his client was told a few years ago that if he showed remorse for the crime, he likely would have been paroled.
"I don't know what I would respond after the system had let me down the way it had and I'd been in prison 23, 24 years," Raley said. "But this man told them, 'All I have left is my actual innocence. And if I have to spend the rest of my life in prison I'm not giving that up.'"
Morton's release could become an issue for Perry, who is vying for the Republican presidential nomination. Perry appointed Bradley to the forensic commission in 2009, but the Texas Senate refused to confirm him after he told reporters Willingham was a "guilty monster."
A report indicating that the science in the Willingham case might have been flawed was submitted to Perry's office as part of the appeals Willingham's lawyers filed before his execution.