Imagine being out to dinner with the love of your life and your beautiful, smiling, 3-year-old child. It's a double celebration: your birthday and the end of your young boy's difficult recovery from surgery for a heart defect.
As you cross the street afterward, holding hands and swinging the little one up in the air, you think, "This is what it's about."
You know it's one of the best days of your life.
For Michael Morton, that day was August 12, 1986. He had just turned 32.
The next day, it was all taken away. The dream became a nightmare.
Christine, his wife, was attacked and killed at their home in Williamson County, Texas, just outside Austin. Michael Morton was at work at the time. Still, authorities suspected him.
"Innocent people think that if you just tell the truth then you've got nothing to fear from the police," Morton says now. "If you just stick to it that the system will work, it'll all come to light, everything will be fine."
Instead, Morton was charged, ripped away from his boy, and put on trial, CNN's Chris Cuomo reports.
The prosecutor, speaking to the jury in emotional terms with tears streaming down his face, laid out a graphic, depraved sexual scenario, accusing Morton of bludgeoning his wife for refusing to have sex on his birthday.
"There was no scientific evidence, there was no eyewitness, there was no murder weapon, there was no believable motive," Morton says. "... I didn't see how any rational, thinking person would say that's enough for a guilty verdict."
But with no other suspects, the jury convicted him. "We all felt so strongly that this was justice for Christine and that we were doing the right thing," says Mark Landrum, who was the jury foreman.
Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison.
He saw his son Eric only twice a year. "I would love seeing him, I was fascinated with his every move," Morton says. But Eric "was becoming more distant," Morton says. "He was becoming less mine."
As a teen, Eric had no memories of his father outside of prison. Letters his dad wrote him were "just a window into a life that never happened," he says. His father "barely existed in my life. I didn't have memories of him outside of the visits to prison."
Eric decided to stop visiting. "I think it was embarrassing for me to think that I had to go to jail to see my dad."
Michael Morton wrote Eric saying he had to come and tell him that in person. He did.
"It was another one of those numb, painful things," Morton says. "I just looked at my sister-in-law and said something like, 'Take care of my son.'"
Eric also changed his last name to that of the relatives who raised him.
A few years ago, a group of attorneys, working pro bono on Morton's behalf, managed to bring the truth to light. Not only was Morton innocent, but the prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was accused of withholding crucial evidence.
The little boy, Eric, had seen the attack and told relatives that daddy was not home at the time. He described the man who did it. Neighbors had described a man parking a green van behind the Mortons' house and walking off into a wooded area. A blood-stained bandana was found nearby. None of that evidence made it into the trial.
It took years of fighting, but Morton's attorneys finally got the bandana tested for DNA. It contained Christine Morton's blood and hair and the DNA of another man - a convicted felon named Mark Norwood.
Norwood had killed Christine Morton. And since no one figured that out after her death, he remained free. He killed another woman in the Austin area, Debra Baker, in similar circumstances less than two years later, authorities say.
Norwood has now been convicted in Morton's killing, and indicted in Baker's killing.
Morton was freed in October 2011. He was 57 years old. "I thank God this wasn't a capital case," he said.
SEE PART TWO OF MORTON'S STOY:
For much more about the dramatic exoneration of falsely accused murderer Michael Morton, watch CNN Films' "An Unreal Dream, The Michael Morton Story," airing Thursday, December 5, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN TV.
I watched the special; there was just something in me which wanted to see this special.
I believe I already knew this man was innocent; sounds strange but I have studied the
Criminal Justice System...and talk about errors...writing this diplomatically.
Michael Morton was held in the hands of God. I know this to be a fact. Not only was he held,
he chose to maintain his experience of integrity, being loved by God, and remembering
"how important is it"; what I mean here is when you have lost everything "or so it seems",
and you have the experience Michael has you are a transformed human being.
He did hold you Michael...I am so very happy you have inhaled freedom yet have given
your will "the greatest gift from God", to God. WOW....there are never sufficient words.
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