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.

himself.) Law enforcement was in his blood—his great-grandfather John Champion had briefly served as the Williamson County sheriff after the Civil War—and stories were often repeated about Boutwell’s ability to win over almost anyone, even people he was about to lock up. More than once, he had defused a tense situation by simply walking up to a man wielding a gun and lifting the weapon right out of his hands. At election time, Boutwell always ran unopposed.

But Boutwell also played by his own rules, a tendency that had, in one notorious case, resulted in a botched investigation whose flawed conclusions reverberated through the cold-case files of police departments across the country. In 1983, three years before Christine’s murder, Boutwell coaxed a confession from Henry Lee Lucas, a one-eyed drifter who would, within a year’s time, be considered the most prolific serial killer in American history. Earlier that summer, Lucas had pleaded guilty to two murders—in Montague and Denton counties—and then boasted of committing at least a hundred more. At the invitation of the sheriff of Montague County, his old friend W. F. “Hound Dog” Conway, Boutwell had driven to Montague to question Lucas about an unsolved Williamson County case known as the Orange Socks murder. (The victim, who was never identified, was wearing only orange socks when her body was found in a culvert off Interstate 35 on Halloween in 1979.) After a productive initial interrogation, Boutwell brought Lucas back to Williamson County and elicited further details from him about the killing, but his methods were unethical at best. “He led Henry to the crime scene, showed him photos of the victim, and fed him information,” reporter Hugh Aynesworth, whose 1985 exposé on Lucas for the Dallas Times Herald was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, told me. “Henry didn’t even get the way he killed her right on the first try: he said Orange Socks must have been stabbed, instead of strangled. His ‘confession’ was recorded four times so it could be refined.”

Lucas, who was held at the Williamson County jail, seemed to like the attention. In subsequent interviews with Boutwell, the number of murders he claimed to have committed climbed to a staggering 360. Despite signs that Lucas was taking everyone for a ride, the Williamson County DA’s office—which had nothing but his confession to connect him to the Orange Socks killing—charged him with capital murder. Among the many problems with the state’s case was the fact that Lucas had cashed a paycheck in Jacksonville, Florida, nearly one thousand miles away, a day after the killing. When the case went to trial, in 1984, his job foreman testified that he had seen Lucas at least three times on the day the murder occurred. (Prosecutors countered by laying out a time line that allowed Lucas to kill his victim and return to Jacksonville without a second to spare.) During a break in the trial, Boutwell speculated that jurors would see past the case’s myriad contradictions. “Even if they don’t believe Henry did this one, they know he done a lot of them, and they’ll want to see him put away for good,” Boutwell observed. Lucas was found guilty and sentenced to death.

After his conviction, Lucas remained in the Williamson County jail, where he would eventually confess to committing more than six hundred murders. He soon became a kind of macabre celebrity. Investigators from across the country traveled to Georgetown to interview him about their unsolved cases, but the integrity of Lucas’s confessions was dubious. A task force manned by Boutwell and several Texas Rangers often briefed him before detectives arrived; one Ranger memo stated that in order to “refresh” Lucas’s memory, he was furnished with crime-scene photos and information about his supposed victims. Provided with milk shakes, color TV, and assurances that he would not be transferred to death row as long as he kept talking, Lucas obliged. He gave visiting investigators enough lurid details that he was eventually indicted for 189 homicides. Not a single fingerprint, weapon, or eyewitness ever corroborated his claims. Even as his stories grew more and more outlandish—he declared that he had killed Jimmy Hoffa and delivered the poison for the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana—Boutwell never washed his hands of him. The sheriff, who was interviewed by reporters from as far away as Japan, appeared to enjoy the limelight.

Years later, after Boutwell died of lymphatic cancer, Governor George W. Bush took the unusual step of commuting Lucas’s death sentence to life in prison. “While Henry Lee Lucas is guilty of committing a number of horrible crimes, serious concerns have been raised about his guilt in this case,” Bush announced in 1998, on the eve of Lucas’s execution for the Orange Socks murder. By then, it was no secret that the investigation Boutwell had kick-started was a fiasco. Aynesworth’s exhaustive Times Herald series had used work records, receipts, and a trail of documents to show that Lucas was likely responsible for no more than three of the slayings credited to him. In the spring of 1986 Texas attorney general Jim Mattox had issued a scathing report about the Lucas “hoax” and the investigators who had perpetuated it.

This was just a few months before the murder of Christine Morton, but when Boutwell arrived at the crime scene that day, Mattox’s report probably wasn’t weighing too heavily on his mind. It might have hurt his reputation in Austin, 28 miles south, but in Georgetown he remained untarnished. “He’d go around town, boy, and everyone would clap him on the back,” Aynesworth told me. “He was a hero.”

The house on Hazelhurst was blocked off with crime-scene tape when Michael returned home. Despite the oppressive heat that August afternoon, many of his neighbors were standing outside in their yards; they stopped talking when they saw him pull up. Michael sprinted across the lawn and tried to push his way inside, past the sheriff’s deputies and technicians from the DPS crime lab who were already on the scene, but

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