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 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 several officers converged on him. “He’s the husband,” Boutwell called out, once Michael had identified himself.

Michael was breathing hard. “Is my son okay?” he asked.

He’s fine,” Boutwell said. “He’s at the neighbors’.”

How about my wife?”

The sheriff was matter-of-fact. “She’s dead,” he replied.

Boutwell led Michael into the kitchen and introduced him to Sergeant Don Wood, the case’s lead investigator. “We have to ask you a few questions before we can get your son,” Boutwell told him. Dazed, Michael took a seat at the kitchen table. He had shown no reaction to the news of Christine’s death, and as he sat across from the two lawmen, he tried to make sense of what was happening around him. Sheriff’s deputies brushed past him, opening drawers and rifling through cabinets. He could see the light of a camera flash exploding again and again in the master bedroom as a police photographer documented what Michael realized must have been the place where Christine was killed. He could hear officers entering and exiting his house, exchanging small talk. Someone dumped a bag of ice into the kitchen sink and stuck Cokes in it. Cigarette smoke hung in the air.

Bewildered, Michael looked to the two law enforcement officers for answers. “She was murdered?” he asked, incredulous. “Where was my son?” Boutwell was not forthcoming. The sheriff said only that Christine had been killed but that they did not yet know what had happened to her.

By then, Boutwell had been in the house for two and a half hours. Sheriff’s deputies had arrived earlier that afternoon, responding to a panicked phone call from the Mortons’ next-door neighbor Elizabeth Gee, who had spotted Eric wandering around the Mortons’ front yard by himself, wearing only a shirt and a diaper. Alarmed, she let herself in to the Morton home and called out for her friend. Hearing nothing, she looked around the house. After searching the home several times, she finally discovered Christine’s body lying on the water bed, with a comforter pulled up over her face. A blue suitcase and a wicker basket had been stacked on top of her. The wall and the ceiling were splattered with blood. Her head had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a blunt object.

From the start, Boutwell treated Michael not like a grieving husband but like a suspect. The sheriff had never tried to reach Michael to notify him of Christine’s death, and once he arrived, their conversation at the kitchen table began with Boutwell’s reading Michael his Miranda rights. His opinion of Michael was informed by the note left in the bathroom for Christine, which established that Michael had been angry with her in the hours leading up to her murder.

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