Editors’ note: This is part one of a two-part story. The second half can be found here.
On April 12, 1987, Michael Morton sat down to write a letter. “Your Honor,” he began, “I’m sure you remember me. I was convicted of murder, in your court, in February of this year.” He wrote each word carefully, sitting cross-legged on the top bunk in his cell at the Wynne prison unit, in Huntsville. “I have been told that you are to decide if I am ever to see my son, Eric, again. I haven’t seen him since the morning that I was convicted. I miss him terribly and I know that he has been asking about me.” Referring to the declarations of innocence he had made during his trial, he continued, “I must reiterate my innocence. I did NOT kill my wife. You cannot imagine what it is like to lose your wife the way I did, then to be falsely accused and convicted of this terrible crime. First, my wife and now possibly, my son! Sooner or later, the truth will come out. The killer will be caught and this nightmare will be over. I pray that the sheriff’s office keeps an open mind. It is no sin to admit a mistake. No one is perfect in the performance of their job. I don’t know what else to say except I swear to God that I did NOT kill my wife. Please don’t take my son from me too.”
His windowless concrete cell, which he shared with another inmate, measured five by nine feet. If he extended his arms, he could touch the walls on either side of him. A small metal locker that was bolted to the wall contained one of the few remnants he still possessed from his previous life: a photograph of Eric when he was three years old, taken shortly before the murder. The boy was standing in the backyard of their house in Austin, playing with a wind sock, grabbing the streamers that fluttered behind it in the breeze. There was a picture too of his late wife, Christine—a candid shot Michael had taken of her years earlier, with her hair pinned up, still wet from a bath. She was looking away from the camera, but she was smiling slightly, her fingers pressed against her mouth. The crime-scene photos were still fresh in Michael’s mind, but if he focused on the snapshot, the horror of those images abated. Christine with damp hair, smiling—this was how he wanted to remember her.
The last time he had seen her was on the morning of August 13, 1986, the day after his thirty-second birthday. He had glanced at her as she lay in bed, asleep, before he left for work around five-thirty. He returned home that afternoon to find the house cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. Six weeks later, he was arrested for her murder. He had no criminal record, no history of violence, and no obvious motive, but the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, failing to pursue other leads, had zeroed in on him from the start. Although no physical evidence tied him to the crime, he was charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors argued that he had become so enraged with Christine for not wanting to have sex with him on the night of his birthday that he had bludgeoned her to death. When the guilty verdict was read, Michael’s legs buckled beneath him. District attorney Ken Anderson told reporters afterward, “Life in prison is a lot better than he deserves.”
The conviction had triggered a bitter custody battle between Christine’s family—who, like many people in Michael’s life, came to believe that he was guilty—and Michael’s parents. The question of who would be awarded custody of Eric was to be resolved by state district judge William Lott, who had also presided over Michael’s trial. If Christine’s family won custody, Michael was justifiably concerned that he would never see his son again.
Two weeks after sending his first entreaty to Lott, Michael penned another letter. “My son has lost his mother,” he wrote. “Psychological good can come from [seeing] his one surviving parent.” Ultimately, custody of the boy was awarded to Christine’s younger sister, Marylee Kirkpatrick. But at the recommendation of a child psychiatrist who felt that Eric should know his father, Lott agreed to allow two supervised visits a year. Marylee drove Eric to Huntsville every six months to see his father. He was four when the visits began.
At first, Eric was oblivious to his surroundings. He raced his Matchbox cars along the plastic tabletops in the visitation area, mimicking the sounds of a revving engine. He talked about the things he loved: dinosaurs, comic books, astronomy, his dog. As he grew older, he described the merit badges he had earned in Boy Scouts and his Little League triumphs. Marylee always sat beside him, her impassive expression impossible to decipher. For Eric’s sake, she seemed determined to make the mandated reunions—which she had strenuously opposed—as normal as possible. She flipped through magazines as Eric and his father spoke, sometimes glancing up to join in. Michael tried to pretend there was nothing unusual about the arrangement either, dispensing lemon drops he had purchased at the prison commissary and talking to his son about the Astros’ ups and downs or the Oilers’ failed attempts at a comeback. During the months that stretched between visits, he wrote letters to Eric, but Marylee did not encourage the correspondence, and it remained a one-way conversation.
Over the years, as Eric got older, Michael would try not to register surprise at each new haircut and growth spurt, but the changes always startled him. He was dumbstruck the first time he heard Eric call Marylee “Mom.” The boy’s memories of his mother had, by then, receded. “Of course, I have lost him,” Michael wrote in his journal after one visit, when Eric was ten. “He knows little or nothing of me or the short time we spent together.”