Unraveling a Miscarriage of Justice: A Texas journalist tells the story of how a man could be imprisoned for a quarter of a century for a crime he didn’t commit
July 7, 2012
The newsroom in Georgetown, Texas, was grim, lonely and sparsely populated on Friday nights in October 2011.
But reporter Andrew McLemore, kept company by the occasional beer and his editor at the Williamson County Sun, Ben Trollinger, worked until the early hours of Saturday mornings editing and revising, determined to answer the overriding question for Williamson County: How could such a serious miscarriage of justice have occurred?
How could an innocent man spend 25 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife?
“The idea of getting to work on a story like this was thrilling from the get-go,” says the 25-year-old McLemore of the chance to cover the story of Christine Morton’s murder, a crime that left her husband Michael Morton languishing in jail for a quarter of a century.
The Williamson County Sun is a 10,000-circulation, biweekly newspaper in a county north of Austin often referred to as Wilco. McLemore had been a reporter at the paper for about a year when he began working on this story. He says having the chance to report on the case “was as great of an opportunity as I could have possibly asked for.”
His 17,000-word-plus, three-part series that ran in October 2011, “Until Proven Innocent,” won this year’s Livingston Award for local reporting. Livingston Awards are given to journalists under 35. McLemore left the Sun earlier this year and has been reporting for the Fort Worth Weekly since March.
A bit of background: Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife. The murder was sexual in nature and brutally horrific. Although the crime was discovered much earlier in the day on August 13, 1986, Morton did not find out something was wrong until he went to pick up the couple’s three-year-old son from daycare that afternoon. When he found out his son had never been dropped off, Michael immediately called home – a call that was answered by then-Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell.
Six weeks after his wife’s death, Morton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After his conviction, which took jurors less than two hours to decide, Morton waged a 25-year campaign to establish his innocence. DNA evidence is what ultimately exonerated Morton in 2011 and linked another man, Mark Alan Norwood, to the murder.
The Livingston Award announcement says McLemore’s reporting “showed the guilty verdict was accomplished when evidence gathered by the lead investigator was withheld by the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
Morton’s defense team says then-District Attorney Ken Anderson and his fellow prosecutors did not make available any exculpatory evidence – evidence favorable to the defendant.
McLemore wrote in the series, “Prosecutors are required by law to hand over any exculpatory evidence to the defense, regardless of whether or not they believe in its veracity. If the additional evidence wasn’t in that file, that means [Judge William] Lott never had the chance to rule on it, defense attorneys never had the chance to review it and jurors never had the chance to consider it.”
Although not the DA at the time of the trial, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley lost reelection in May¯ largely, many think, because of his stance against the DNA testing of a crucial piece of evidence, a bloody blue bandanna found about 300 feet from the Morton’s home.
McLemore says he began covering the case for the Sun in August 2011, when “bombshell” DNA test results in the case were revealed: The DNA on the bloody blue bandanna did not match Morton’s, and instead connected Norwood to the crime. McLemore says Bradley fought against releasing Morton immediately, arguing it was still possible that he had killed his wife.
When Norwood’s DNA was linked to another case – the murder of a woman named Debra Baker – in September 2011, Morton was released from prison on bond…