The Innocent Man, Part Two

During the 25 years that Michael Morton spent wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife, he kept three things in mind: Someday he would prove his innocence to their son. Someday he would find out who had killed her. And someday he would understand how this had happened to him.
Photograph by Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/WPN

Editors' note: This is the second part of a two-part story. The first half was published in the November issue and can be read here.

I.

“Even though I asked to be transferred here for the master’s program, coming here was a shock,” Michael Morton wrote on January 22, 2002, from his cell in the Ramsey I prison unit, south of Houston. He was replying to a letter he had recently received from Mario Garcia, a former co-worker at the Safeway in Austin where he had worked before being sent to prison fifteen years earlier. Besides his parents and his younger sister—who made the five-hundred-mile round-trip from East Texas to visit when they could—Garcia was the only person from Michael’s previous life who had stayed in contact with him. Virtually everyone else believed that he was guilty. Throughout the fall and winter of 1986, his case had been splashed across the front pages of Central Texas newspapers, earning him a grisly notoriety. “Victim’s Husband Held in Murder Investigation,” the Hill Country News announced in the fall of 1986. “Killing Linked to Sexual Rage,” trumpeted an Austin American-Statesman headline just before he was sentenced to life in prison, in February 1987. The Williamson County Sun announced, “He’s Guilty.” Michael had become a pariah—a “murderous pervert,” as he would ironically refer to himself.

“When I got here, they used to put all new arrivals in the field force,” Michael wrote, referring to inmates who were assigned to work on the prison farm. That had been three years earlier. Now 47, he was too old to be doing hard physical labor all day long, he told Garcia. His face had settled into the softer contours of middle age, and his sandy blond hair was going gray. “Try to imagine twenty to forty men,” he continued, “shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, swinging their [hoes] in unison and chopping weeds that are, I swear to God, six to ten feet high. Or, on the bad days, working in a huge irrigation ditch, skinning the banks down to bare earth and then dragging the chopped-up vegetation back up the banks. It’s long, hard, backbreaking work. Sometimes guys pass out and have to be carried to the hospital. (Fakers are found out by being dragged onto a fire ant mound. Either way, the consequences suck.) During all this, armed, hard-ass guards are riding around on horseback, shouting Christian-hearted encouragement. Added to the natural camaraderie and high spirits of working outdoors are more snakes, rats, poison ivy, and biting, stinging, and pinching insects than I like to remember. The first few weeks damn near killed me.” 

During his fifteen years in prison, Michael had already survived sweltering summers with no air-conditioning, when temperatures inside the old red-brick penitentiary reached into the triple digits for weeks on end. He had fought off the unwanted attention of a hulking inmate, an enforcer for a prison gang who later died of AIDS, by inviting him into his cell and slamming a makeshift tabletop against his throat. He had been kept awake by inmates who cried at night and by his own longing for his son, Eric, and his wife, Christine, whose absences he felt only more acutely as the years wore on. But in his letters to Garcia, Michael tried to strike an upbeat note. “I have fallen in with a tolerable collection of half-witted misfits,” he wrote in one letter. “Despite it all, I am okay,” he assured Garcia in another. “Honest.” 

When he did allude to the indignities of his daily life, he added a heavy dose of gallows humor, as when he dubbed a stomach flu that swept through the prison population one winter “the Brown Storm.” (“I live on a dorm with 56 guys and four toilets,” he wrote. “Do the math. It wasn’t pretty.”) He proudly described working toward his master’s degree in literature—he had already earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology during the early years of his incarceration—and he expressed how much he enjoyed reading Homer and Dante. He casually mentioned that he was at work on a novel. 

Eric was a recurrent subject in his letters to Garcia. The boy was being raised by Christine’s sister, Marylee, who, along with the rest of her family, had come to believe he was guilty. “It seems hard to believe, but he’s eighteen years old,” Michael wrote that January. “This spring, he’ll graduate from a private Catholic high school in Houston. The Jesuits are supposed to be good at cramming info into the heads of teenagers, so I hope he’s ready for college. I say ‘I hope he’s ready’ because I don’t know. We’ve drifted apart. A few years ago, he reached the age where coming to visit his old man wasn’t at the top of his to-do list.” In fact, Eric—when he was fifteen—had cut off all contact with his father.

Michael never failed to express his gratitude to Garcia for taking the time to correspond with him. “No matter how my train wreck of a life ends up, I will always think of you as one of the best,” Michael signed off one letter. “Adiós for now, my friend.”

Amid the jumble of holiday mail that arrived at Bill Allison’s house every December, there was always one envelope that stood out, distinguished by the return address from prison and Michael’s familiar handwriting. The Christmas card inside—in which Michael thanked Allison for defending him so forcefully during his trial—left him flooded with emotion. He had always felt certain that Michael was innocent, and he was filled with regret that he had not been able to convince the jury of this. “I’ve practiced law for forty-one years,” he told me. “In terms of the psychological toll that cases have taken on me, Michael’s was the worst.” In the aftermath of the guilty verdict, he said, “I couldn’t get over it. I went into a three-year tailspin.”

In Allison’s opinion, something had gone very wrong during the

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