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DNA frees Tx. man after 25 years in prison

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DNA frees Tx. man after 25 years in prison

Prosecutors agree Michael Morton did not kill his wife

  • Debra Jan Baker, Michael Morton (center), and Williamson County (Texas) District Attorney John Bradley.
    Photo illustration by Todd Wiseman/Texas TribuneDebra Jan Baker, Michael Morton (center), and Williamson County (Texas) District Attorney John Bradley.

Michael Morton, who served 25 years in a Texas prison for the murder of his wife Christine, will be released after his attorneys reached an agreement with prosecutors, who said Monday in a legal filing that Morton was not his wife's killer.

"Because new DNA evidence, previously unavailable at trial or at the time of Applicant’s prior writ applications through no fault of either party, indicates that someone other than Applicant committed the offense in this case, Applicant’s conviction should be set aside under the authority set forth above," Morton's attorney and Williamson County prosecutors stated in a jointly agreed to "findings of fact and conclusions of law."

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said that the new developments warranted a reversal of Morton's murder conviction. "It is my job, as district attorney, to make sure that justice is done," Bradley said after the court action Monday.

The dramatic development occurred after Travis County prosecutors last week presented Bexar County Judge Sid Harle  with evidence in a long-cold Austin murder case linking it to recently obtained DNA evidence in the murder of Christine Morton. That evidence revealed that the blood of Christine Morton and DNA from another man who was not her husband was found on a bandana left near the scene of the 1986 crime.

Travis County prosecutors, who have refused to comment publicly, suspect the same man may have been involved in the 1988 murder of Debra Jan Baker, who was killed after Michael Morton was already in custody. A pubic hair found at the scene of Baker's murder was linked to the DNA found on the bandana in the Morton case, according to evidence discussed at a hearing today in a Williamson County courtroom.

Morton and his attorneys have steadfastly insisted he had nothing to do with the murder of his wife, suggesting that an intruder must have killed Christine, who was found dead in their bed after he left the house for work early in the morning.

The Morton case could have serious ramifications for Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the former head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who was critical of efforts to examine questions about the arson science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham in the 1991 deaths of his three daughters. (Willingham was executed in 2004.)

For years, Bradley resisted turning over the bandana and other evidence for new DNA testing until a Texas appellate court ordered him to do so last year. Morton's attorneys also say Bradley sat on evidence that should have been turned over to the defense and that could have helped exonerate him. 

Bradley has not commented on the allegations, saying the “rules of professional conduct restrict public comment on matters that are pending in court.” But his office has argued in court that "any claim that this evidence was somehow suppressed seems to be unfounded."

On Monday, Bradley said he was proud to join in the agreement to release Morton.

Morton was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after prosecutors told jurors that he had bludgeoned to death his wife when she refused to have sex with him after they came home from celebrating his birthday. There were no witnesses, and Michael Morton had no history of violent crime.

This summer, Morton’s lawyers received the results of the new genetic analysis that showed the bandana was stained with Christine’s blood and DNA from a man who was not her husband. That DNA, in turn, was matched to the profile of a felon with a criminal history in California.

Debra Jan Baker's body was discovered on Jan. 13, 1988, in her north Austin home, about 12 miles from where Morton's body was found about a year and a half earlier. Initially, police focused on Baker’s estranged husband, Phillip Baker. But Phillip, who at the time worked at the local jail, said in an interview that the police eliminated him as a suspect. 

The case was cold until several weeks ago, when investigators appeared to make a connection between the Morton and Baker murders.

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