Exonerated Michael Morton: “You’re Supposed to Forgive”
Michael Morton used to live in northwest Austin, until he was convicted in 1987 of bludgeoning his wife to death in bed. Then he lived in a prison for 25 years. But last year, DNA testing showed he was innocent and Morton was released and exonerated. Now an inquiry is gearing up to investigate whether the Willamson County prosecutor at the time suppressed evidence.
Michael Morton joined us in studio. You can hear the interview by clicking the player above or read the transcript below.
KUT News: How are you doing?
Morton: Great. (laughs) Life is very, very good. Some people said to be on the lookout for periods of adjustment, post-traumatic stress, whatever, sleeping problems, anger issues, impulse control. That ain’t happening. Everything is wonderful. It’s a matter of perspective.
I came down here Sunday night, and just the other day I took my cousin and his daughter to dinner, and in the process of the evening I lost my wallet. I don’t have my ID. I don’t have my insurance card. I don’t have my debit card. I had lost several hundred dollars in cash, but big deal! It’s nothing I can’t replace. Things are good. I’m not complaining. I got nothing to complain about.
KUT News: You seem happy. You smile a lot. But after everything that happened, how are you not more bitter?
Morton: I forgave a lot folks. I don’t mind admitting that I spent a number of years plotting the early demise of several people. Quite a few people actually. The sheriff, the DA, the usual suspects.
My lawyer told me something. I had heard it before, and I don’t know who the first guy to say it was. But he said, “To have revenge and hate in your heart is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies.”
That may be kind of flowery, symbolic, hyperbole, but it’s perfectly accurate. When you do get there – and it’s a conscious choice but then it takes a little bit of time – you feel lighter, you drop forty pounds. It’s an improvement in every aspect of your life.
If you try to do it to get the good feeling, it won’t happen. You have to do it because you’re supposed to forgive. I found out from harsh experience that it works.
KUT News: I have to ask you. I just can’t imagine losing your loved one and then being blamed for it. How did that feel?
Morton: You’re gutted. A lot of it you become numb because so many horrific things are happening so quickly. And you’re forced into doing things you may not have done.
It was brought to my attention and I had to admit that I didn’t have much time and therefore I didn’t really grieve for my wife because, immediately, the cops were after me. And I had to hire attorneys to defend me on a homicide charge. I had to take care of my son. I had to take him to a child psychologist. Things were just happening. Boom, our income was suddenly cut in half.
People were driving by and honking at night. I was the boogey man. Look at the old media coverage. I was Lucifer’s spawn. I was a “murderous perv.”
I was surprised. Most people I think are eventually surprised when put in harsh situations. You can do more than you think you can and you often do what you have to do.
KUT News: You went to prison in 1987. How long did you think you were going to be there?
Morton: I remember a conversation I had with my mother at a visit. She was obviously distraught, because this whole thing’s been harder on my parents than it was on me.
But one time I told her, “Toughen up mom, this little nasty thing might take five long years to be done.” (laughs)
I thought I would get out. Somehow, I mean the DNA was a longshot in the beginning. I thought the guy might have years of guilt and remorse and finally confess. It might be something through another case. I had a pistol that was stolen from the house. I thought that might pop up somewhere because the serial number is on the gun.
I didn’t know what it was going to be, but somewhere, somehow, someway, I figured it would happen. I just didn’t know how or when.
KUT News: I know you have said that one of the things that helps you get through prison life is to have something to hold on to. Your son was that for a long time. He was three years old when you were sent to prison. And I know you are rebuilding your relationship with him now. But when he was 18 you found out he had been adopted by your sister-in-law and her husband and had legally changed his name.
Morton: Yeah, that’s what broke me. Everybody has to have something or you’ll end up hanging yourself. You have to have some kind of hope and he was mine.
When my sister-in-law and her husband, who were good people, they adopted him my son legally changed his name. For some reason that was the thing that broke me. It may not actually have been that one particular thing. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but that’s what did it.
When I had literally felt that I had nowhere to turn and nothing to hope for, I did that lowest, most common thing you can do is you cry out to God, because there is nowhere to turn and you’ve got nothing. You are literally a pauper in every sense of the word, every single physical as well as symbolic sense of the word.
I think it’s kind of intriguing that when I cried out to God, I didn’t hear a thing. It was just silence, nothing, zip. I think that’s probably, well I know it’s a good thing, because a while later, everything turned around. Then I got an answer. (laughs)
KUT News: What happened?
Morton: I can’t put a number on it. Seven, ten days, a week, I don’t know. There was a brief amount of time after I cried out and got a big no answer.
Incredibly average gray, boring day in prison, nothing different. Work was the same. Rec was the same. Food was… nothing stands out in my mind whatsoever. My cell partner was asleep.
It was the end of the day, just like hundreds and hundreds before it. And it appeared to be hundreds and hundreds stretched out ahead of me. I killed the light, put on my headphones, went up and down the dial a couple times, and I was going to go to sleep.
I ran across a classical station out of Houston, and they were playing something very unusual, which is now, to me, comical. It was harp music. You don’t hear too many harps on the radio. Even if you listen to KUT, you don’t listen to too many harps. And I thought, “That was odd.”
The next thing that happened… There was no warning. There was no build up. There was no premonition. It was just like all of the sudden like a glass rod being broken, just that fast. I was bathed in this golden light. I mean it was just… It was warm. It was comforting. I was blinded by it. It was just golden all around me. And I felt absolutely wonderful.
I felt as though I was floating above the mattress on the bunk, had this roaring in my ears that I’ve since read about being described as a mighty wind or rushing waters or whatever. And I felt this immeasurable, limitless, just phenomenal gigantic love or infinite compassion aimed right at me. Not at just us, but at me.
And I knew without any doubt at all, I didn’t have to wonder about it, I just knew it was as plain as anything that it was the presence of God.
Some other stuff that I don’t understand happened, but the gist of it is that in just a little while, I heard my alarm going off, and I reflexively reached over and turned it off. And I looked at it and it was morning, and I was a little bit taken back to say the least. I didn’t remember setting my alarm. My headphones were on the hook, and I didn’t remember that, or I didn’t remember turning them off.
And I sat up in bed and thought, “What was that? Oh my God!” (laughs) Or, excuse me I knew what it was, but the why. What was that about? It was a cosmic, metaphysical head scratcher. I was like, “Oh my God. Why? What? What’s going on here?”
I spent months at least. I spent a good amount of time chewing on that. Wondering about it. I talked to some people. I did a lot of reading. Two people I talked to knew exactly what I was talking about. “Oh yeah, no problem. I know about that.”
The last class I took in graduate school, one part of it rather, covered the Christian mystics of the Dark Ages. When I read their stuff I went, “Oh my God. There it is.”
That and a lot of other things made me realize that my question as to why was nothing more than I had asked, “You there?” I cried out, “Show me something. Anything.” And the only thing that happened was that I got exactly what I asked for.
I’m not a prophet. I’m not a zealot. I’m not a preacher. You know all that. No. But I know without a doubt that in some little sliver of exposure, call it was you will, I was in the presence of God almighty in a very small, little part that I can maybe sort of understand.
KUT News: To help us understand what you were going through, can you explain what prison life is like when you’re there for years and years and years?
Morton: It’s very immediate. It’s harsh. It’s repetitive and loud and boring and stupid. Sometimes violent. The food’s bad. The clothes don’t fit. The haircuts are funny, and the people aren’t nice.
It’s very cold in the wintertime and it’s unbearably hot in the summer. When it rains you get wet. In the summertime, everybody has a sun burn. It smells bad in there.
But having said all that, the most profound experience of my life occurred in there. I am who I am because of it. And I would be a fool to ignore it or discount it or dismiss it.
It’s not supposed to be a nice place, but having said that, you’re supposed to go there as punishment, not for punishment.
Of course, it could be improved. The Hyatt down on the lake could be improved. Everything could be improved. It’s the way it is for a reason. However, there seems to be a grand vista as far as possible improvements go. (laughs) But that’s a whole other issue.
This thing, it’s like it is, and it could be better, but it turned my life around. Before, it was rough grinding, everyday stuff, struggle, struggle, struggle. Afterwards, when I accepted and internalized everything, guys would come up to me in something of a semi-confrontational situation and say, “Why are you so happy? What’s with the smile, dumbass?” (laughs)
They didn’t understand why or how I could happy there. I’m not saying that I enjoyed it. I didn’t like it. But I was used to it. But they could not comprehend the look on my face. And they surely didn’t comprehend what was inside me.
KUT News: A special inquiry into your case will begin in September. It’s going to investigate claims of prosecutorial misconduct by former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, the prosecutor who oversaw your case. What are you hoping will come out of that?
Morton: I’m not rooting for something horrible to happen to the people involved, but having said that, we all participate in a social contract. And we have a process here that needs to play out. I’m hoping for accountability, responsibility.
Most of us consider ourselves to be in a situation where our actions have some sort of response. If you do something, you expect something in return. If you obey the law, you expect you have your liberty. If you break the law, you expect to be put in handcuffs. If you do well in class, you expect a good grade. If you skip it and don’t do very well, you’re probably going to fail. There are consequences.
Like I say, I’m not hoping for heads to be on sticks. But accountability is what I’m really praying for.
What I’d like to do, the only reason I’m talking to you today, is I hope to put some pressure of whatever stripe on our legislators and maybe the State Bar. Everything I’m doing here is so that what happened to me, this thing, doesn’t happen to anybody else. And we can do that with just a little bit of tweaking of state law.
KUT News: What are the tweaks that need to be made?
Morton: I understand that people are afraid of change, but the simple tweaks are not some clearing of the decks or a grand revolution. I don’t want a revolution. But just a little tweak.
If any prosecutor is caught suppressing evidence, violating Brady [Doctrine], then two things could happen. He could be liable for a financial fine, and his law license is in jeopardy. No thinking prosecutor is going to put his law license on the line just to prosecute somebody.
In fact, this will just ensure or help ensure that everybody obeys the law. We follow the rules. It’s a level playing field, and what happens in court, happens in court. I don’t want much, just that. And that would stop what happened to me from happening to you.
I’m no special case. I’m incredibly average. I lived in a nice neighborhood. Brick home. Yard. Fence. We had a dog, child, patio, the whole thing. I’m everybody that’s listening right now. There’s nothing separating me from your listeners. I am you.
KUT News: Michael Morton, thanks for your time sir.
Morton: You’re very welcome. Nice talking to you.