The Innocent Man, Part One

On August 13, 1986, Michael Morton came home from work to discover that his wife had been brutally murdered in their bed. His nightmare had only begun.

the time Eric turned thirteen, the tenor of their visits changed. Eric was distant and impatient to leave. Michael knew that the boy had started asking questions; during a trip to East Texas to see his paternal grandparents, he had asked if it was true that his father had killed his mother. Fearful of alienating Eric any further, Michael never tried to engage him in a conversation about the case or persuade him that he had been wrongfully convicted. He assumed that Marylee would contradict any argument he made, and he doubted Eric would believe him anyway.

The silences that stretched between them became so agonizing that Michael often found himself turning to Marylee to make conversation. Two hours were allotted for their visits, but that was an eternity. “Well … ,” Marylee would say when they ran out of small talk.

Yes,” Michael would agree. “It’s probably time.”

Their last meeting was so brief that Eric and Marylee barely sat down. Eric, who was fifteen, was unable to look Michael in the eye. “I don’t want to come here anymore,” he choked out.

Michael considered thanking Marylee for turning his son against him or telling Eric that everything he had been led to believe was a lie. But as he looked at his son, who stared hard at the floor, he kept those thoughts to himself. “I’m not going to force you to come see me,” Michael told him. “You can come back anytime if you change your mind.” Before he walked away, he said to Marylee, “Take good care of my son for me.”

II.

When Michael and Christine bought the house on Hazelhurst Drive, in 1985, northwest Austin had not yet been bisected by toll roads or swallowed up by miles of unbroken suburban sprawl. The real estate bust had brought construction to a standstill, and the half-built subdivision where they lived, east of Lake Travis, was a patchwork of new homes and uncleared, densely wooded lots. Although the Morton home had an Austin address, it sat just north of the Travis County line, in Williamson County—an area that, despite an incursion of new residents and rapid development, still retained the rural feel and traditional values of small-town Texas. Austin was seen as morally permissive, a refuge for dope smoking and liberal politics that Williamson County, which prided itself on its law-and-order reputation, stood against. In Georgetown, the county seat, bars and liquor stores were prohibited.

Their neighborhood was a place for newcomers, most of them young professionals with children. The Mortons arrived when Eric was a toddler, and Christine had quickly learned everyone’s name on their street, often stopping in the driveway after work to visit with the neighbors. Friendly and unguarded, with long brown hair and bright-blue eyes, she had a disarming confidence; she might squeeze the arm of the person she was talking to as she spoke or punctuate conversation with a boisterous laugh. Michael was slower to warm to strangers, and his neighbors on Hazelhurst, whom he never got to know well, found him remote, even prickly. (“He would spend the whole morning working in the yard and never look up,” one told me.) The Mortons’ next-door neighbor Elizabeth Gee, a lawyer’s wife and stay-at-home mother, often seemed taken aback by Michael’s lack of social graces. He made no secret of the fact that he found her comically straitlaced; he and Christine had gone out to dinner with the Gees once, and Michael had rolled his eyes when she had demurely looked to her husband to answer for her after the waiter asked if she wanted a drink.

Christine had grown up in the suburbs south of Houston and attended Catholic school, where she was a popular student and member of the drill team. Michael was rougher around the edges. His father’s job with an oil field service company had taken the family from Waco to a succession of small towns across Southern California before they finally settled in Kilgore, where Michael attended his last two years of high school. One day when Michael was sixteen, his father brought him along to an oil drilling site, and Michael sat in the car and watched as his dad slogged through his work in an icy rain. The experience forever cured him of wanting to toil in the oil patch. He went to Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, where, in 1976, he met Christine in a psychology class. For their first date, he took her out in a borrowed Corvette, and not long afterward, she confided to her friend Margaret Permenter that she thought he might be “the one.” “Mike was pretty reserved, but he was nice and handsome, with one of those Jimmy Connors haircuts,” Permenter told me. “Chrissy was more committed than he was at first.”

Christine followed Michael to Austin in 1977 after he dropped out of SFA. They had hoped to finish their degrees at the University of Texas, but the plan fizzled when they learned that many of their credits would not transfer. Instead, Michael landed a job stocking shelves at night at a Safeway and eventually became a manager, overseeing toiletries and housewares. (He would also later start a side business cleaning parking lots.) He and Christine spent their weekends at Lake Travis, waterskiing and buzzing around in the jet boat that Michael and several of his college buddies had pooled their money to buy. He became an avid scuba diver, and on his days off, he would explore Lake Travis for hours.

Michael and Christine were affectionate with each other but also voluble about their problems. “It was not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but they had what I would call passionate conversations,” Jay Gans, a former roommate of Michael’s, told me. “There was nothing subtle about either one of them. They would argue very intensely, and eventually one of them would start cracking up, and not long after that, they would disappear into the bedroom.” They married in 1979.

The candor with

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