|From left, Michael Morton's mom, Michael Morton, Rachel Pecker '13, and Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project|
Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years in a Williamson County, Texas, prison for murdering his wife, Christine, until the Innocence Project took on his case. DNA testing proved his innocence and implicated the real perpetrator, Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history. Norwood has also been tied to a similar Texas murder that occurred two years after the murder of Morton’s wife.
Cardozo alumna Rachel Pecker '13 worked on the case as a student and intern in the Innocence Project. Here, she recounts her experience on the case, and what it was like to be there when Morton was freed. Her reflection is on behalf of Morton’s memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace, which was released in July. Learn more about Morton's book and purchase a copy here.
"The summer of my 1L year, like 10 previous law students before me, I was assigned to work on Michael Morton’s case as an Innocence Project clinic student. I combed through thousands of documents – reading every word on every page of documents filling boxes piled around me – in search of any evidence that would help free Michael. And then we found them, a few documents, buried for more than two decades, because the prosecution had wrongly withheld them from the defense. At the same time, DNA test results finally came back, proving conclusively that Christine’s and another man’s, not Michael's, DNA were on evidence from the crime scene.
I remember the ache of being on a call with Michael weeks prior when we had to tell him we had no good news to share. And then I remember the whirlwind of events and calls when we told him the amazing news: he'd be free in only a few days.
I travelled to Texas with a team of lawyers and the Innocence Project social worker for his court date. On the morning he was to be released, I was with his mother, father, and sister at a café a mile from the courthouse, to shield them from the media as we waited for word it was time. His family could have been my family: they were gentle, well-spoken, exhausted yet alert. They repeated that they hadn't known whether they would live to see the day Michael would get out. I was speechless: overcome by their strength, faith, and their patience. I was baffled that somehow, I’d ended up in a small town in Texas, and was sharing this unimaginable moment in their lives. It was a privilege.
There's so much we take for granted in our lives. Michael's first night out, I remember him having to choose from a menu, choose what to drink (including alcohol!), and swimming, in the hotel pool, for the first time in twenty-five years. And I laugh remembering Michael’s face when Barry Scheck showed him how to check baseball scores on this new contraption called an ipad.
There are two things that I will always remember from that case. As a lawyer, I think of the creative, persistent, and incredible teamwork of the many lawyers from the Innocence Project, co-counsel's firms, and pro bono firms that it took to force the case forward. As a human, I am forever awed and humbled by the poise, kindness and grace of Michael and his family. That people can be so wronged, so hurt, and yet emerge without being consumed by bitterness and anger? It's still hard for me to fathom. But Michael has. His fortitude, self-control, and capacity for love are a model I strive to emulate in any way I can."
-Rachel Pecker '13