Michael Morton approached the witness box. It was a bright, clear morning in March, and a few dozen family members, journalists, and curious onlookers had gathered at the Tom Green County courthouse, in San Angelo, a grand, columned monument to justice built in 1928 at the height of an oil boom. Sunlight spilled into the courtroom, which had been meticulously restored to its original splendor, complete with a decorative relief on the ceiling of an enormous sunflower. Michael took his seat, his posture ramrod-straight.
This afternoon, Michael Morton received a long-awaited measure of justice when the inquiry into alleged misconduct in the 1987 trial that resulted in his wrongful conviction ended with a stinging rebuke to the man who prosecuted him. State district Judge Louis Sturns, who presided over the court of inquiry, ruled that Ken Anderson—the former D.A. of Williamson County who prosecuted Michael—should face criminal charges for his conduct.
Texas’s criminal justice system is notorious for aggressive prosecutors and tough sentences, but it’s quickly also becoming known for something else: exonerations. A recent report by the National Registry of Exonerations found that 53 of the 114 exonerations since 1989 occured in Texas.
Twenty-six years after Christine Morton was bludgeoned to death in her bed, her killer was finally brought to justice Wednesday, when Mark Alan Norwood was found guilty of capital murder.
On Thursday, the third day of testimony in the capital murder trial of Mark Norwood, the jury finally heard from the enigmatic figure who has been referenced a number of times this week by attorneys for both the state and the defense. Louis Homer Wann Jr—or “Sonny,” as he told special prosecutor Lisa Tanner to call him—did not actually appear in person; a videotaped deposition, which was recorded last fall, was played instead.
To careful observers of Michael Morton’s long search for justice, one of the biggest revelations of Mark Alan Norwood’s capital murder trial came late in the day Wednesday, when a Williamson County employee named Jennifer Smith took the stand. For much of the day, testimony had centered on the bloody blue bandana that had been found behind the Morton home in 1986 and was finally subjected to DNA testing in 2011.
When Michael Morton’s wife, Christine, was bludgeoned to death in her bed on August 13, 1986, two items went missing from their home: her purse and his .45 pistol. The mystery of what happened to the two items was never solved. That fall, after a botched investigation by the Williamson County sheriff’s department, Michael was charged with Christine’s murder. At his trial, then-D.A. Ken Anderson told jurors that Michael had killed his wife and then covered his tracks by staging a burglary.
I remember feeling a little nervous when the heavy door leading to Death Row clanged shut behind me. I didn’t really know what I would see. Having never walked the concrete corridors of a Texas prison, or any other for that matter, I didn’t know at the time that it was very much the same as any other cell block. Inmates stepped aside as we passed, eyes down, in their place behind a yellow line painted along the edge of the floor.
Last year, I chronicled the saga of Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, Christine, in 1987 and was later exonerated by DNA testing after serving nearly a quarter century behind bars.
UPDATE: On April 2, 2013, state district judge Elia Cornejo Lopez ordered that Manuel Velez receive a new trial. The Cameron County judge agreed with Velez’s appellate attorneys, who have argued that Velez received a woefully poor defense at his 2008 capital murder trial.