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Tuesday
Oct042011

DNA Evidence Frees Man After Spending Nearly 25 Years in Prison

Digital Vision/Photodisc/Thinkstock(AUSTIN, Texas) -- After serving nearly 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, Michael Morton was freed Tuesday afternoon in Texas, exonerated by DNA evidence that connected another man to his wife's bludgeoning.

The former grocery store employee, who is now 57, was released Tuesday afternoon when he appeared before the 26th Judicial Court of Williamston County, Texas.

"I know there are a lot of things you want to ask me. I will say this: Colors seem real bright to me now, and the women are real good looking," Morton joked afterward to reporters.

His mother, Pat Morton, told the Austin American-Statesman, "This is one of the happiest days of my life, and I thank God for it."

Morton was convicted of murder in 1987 on circumstantial evidence, and had fought that verdict ever since. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that has exonerated hundreds of people using DNA technology, said its efforts to appeal the conviction were stymied by current Williamson County District Attorney James Bradley, who has been in office since 2001. But Bradley said his decisions to restrict case files and postpone DNA analysis were made with honest intentions.

"Do I in hindsight wish we could have done this quickly? The answer is, 'Yes I do,'" Bradley told ABC News. "Do I think I acted in good faith at the time we were litigating these issues? Yes I do."

One of the files eventually obtained by the Innocence Project through a public records request included an eyewitness account of the crime from Morton's son, less than two weeks after it occurred.

A sergeant at the Williamson County Sheriff's Office interviewed Morton's mother-in-law and his son Eric, who was 3 years old at the time. The child said he had seen a "monster" wearing red gloves and carrying a basket of wood, who threw a suitcase on his mother's bed. He said the man hurt his mother. When asked if his father was home at the time, he said, "No. Mommie and Eric was there."

Christine Morton was found covered in blood on her bed, with a blue suitcase and a wicker basket piled on top of her body. The medical examiner found wood chips in her hair and skull.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project believe Eric witnessed his mother's murder, and questioned why Bradley had barred Morton from obtaining this eyewitness account and other documents from the sheriff's office.

It's unclear what Morton's lawyers were told more than 20 years ago. Bradley claims Morton's lawyers "understood his son was way too young. He couldn't testify and wasn't a credible witness."

A stained bandana was found 100 yards from the Morton home at an abandoned construction site, but in the mid-'80s, DNA analysis wasn't yet available.

The Innocence Project asked the judicial district court in Williamson, Texas, to analyze the blood on the bandana in 2005, but Bradley opposed that request, and every subsequent request for several more years.

The D.A.'s office didn't consider the bandana to be evidence of the crime, Bradley said, because it "was not at the crime scene."

The Innocence Project eventually won a court order to conduct DNA testing in 2009. DNA test results from June revealed Christine Morton's blood and hair were detected on the bandana, in addition to DNA that was later found to match that of a convicted offender in a national DNA database.

Bradley said he could not reveal who it was at this time. He has pledged to dismiss the indictment against Morton, which will allow Morton to collect $80,000 for each year spent in jail, as well as a lifetime annuity from the state.

As a result, the Innocence Project is no longer pursuing its motion to remove Bradley from further court proceedings. It is now investigating claims that the original prosecutors hid evidence from the trial and appellate court.

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