March 8, 2013 New York Times - KILGORE, Tex. — Michael Morton and Cynthia May Chessman politely told the approximately 200 guests invited to their wedding on Saturday to resist giving them gifts. Instead, they asked relatives and friends to donate to the Innocence Project, the nonprofit group founded at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University that uses DNA evidence to free the wrongfully convicted from prison.
It was not an act of charity, but of gratitude. Mr. Morton, 58, spent nearly 25 years in state prison for a crime he did not commit: the murder of his first wife, Christine, who was found beaten to death in the bed of their North Austin home in 1986. Mr. Morton, who at the time was a jovial manager of a supermarket and who had no criminal history, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was portrayed at his trial as a man who went into a rage at his wife’s romantic rebuff and became Inmate No. 445394.
More than two decades after his conviction, DNA testing on a blue bandanna found near his home shortly after the murder showed that the blood of Christine Morton was mixed with the DNA of another man, Mark A. Norwood. Mr. Norwood’s DNA was also found at the scene of another murder in the area that occurred while Mr. Morton was in prison. With the help of his lawyers, as well as Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, and others from the project, Mr. Morton was exonerated and released from prison. Mr. Norwood was arrested and charged in Christine Morton’s murder.
Mr. Morton was 32 when he walked into state prison on March 4, 1987. When he walked out, on Oct. 4, 2011, he was 57 and ready to begin anew.
After his release, Mr. Morton moved in with his parents in Liberty City, Tex., and later started renting a house in nearby Kilgore, a town of 13,000 in the East Texas piney woods 120 miles east of Dallas. One evening in January 2012, he was invited to speak at First Baptist Church Liberty City, which he and his parents had been attending since his release. At the church that night, Mr. Morton spoke of his spiritual journey — one night in 2001 in his cell, he said, he felt the presence of God bathing him in a golden light — and he told the audience that if anyone wanted to learn more about prison life, he would meet for a cup of coffee.
Ms. Chessman, a member of the church, was there that night. “I was actually working in the sound booth, so I was paying real close attention to everything he was saying,” she said. “As he was talking, he said some things that just really rang common with me: that we had both been in a kind of rock-bottom place and needing the Lord to show us something.”
Ms. Chessman, 56, was born and raised in New Mexico and had settled in Liberty City with her first husband and raised their three children. She was married for 23 years before divorcing in 2005. She knew Mr. Morton’s family before she knew Mr. Morton, living around the corner from his sister and attending the same church, and had been praying for him and his release from prison for years.
It took her several days to summon the courage to ask him out for that cup of coffee. She was not interested in prison life. She wanted to learn more about him. “I tried to send him an e-mail and it bounced back,” she said. “I got it wrong. I went, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to call.’ ”
She garnered more courage and called his mother’s house. “I chatted with her a few minutes and then said, ‘Well, I’d like to talk to Michael, would you give him my number?’ ” she said.
Mr. Morton was, in a sense, learning how to live a life taken for granted by most. Modern society was baffling to him. Among other things, he had not quite figured out how to use the credit card machines on gas pumps, and the world of dating was just as perplexing. “I’d been locked up for a good while, and even in my previous life I’d never been asked out on a date,” he said. “Coffee dates are kind of a new phenomenon. I literally kind of scratched my head when she asked. I said, ‘Well, O.K.’ ”
They met at a coffee shop in Kilgore, and talked for four hours. They saw each other at church the next morning, and he asked if they could again meet for coffee. Soon there were other coffee dates, and other long conversations.
She was struck the most by what he had not become. He had nearly 25 years stolen from him while being falsely accused of murdering his wife and the mother of his son, a toddler at the time. A court of inquiry was convened last month to determine whether the prosecutor who handled Mr. Morton’s case, Ken Anderson (now a Texas district judge), withheld evidence in violation of state law. Mr. Anderson contests the allegations and has said he is sick over the wrongful conviction.
Still, Ms. Chessman did not find Mr. Morton angry and resentful. “I’ve marveled the whole time that I’ve known him at the lack of bitterness,” she said.
Mr. Morton was cautious with this new relationship. He had known of parolees who had married within six months of getting out and divorced within 18 months. He had never considered remarrying, and now that he was out of prison, he did not want to make a mistake by rushing into love. But as time went on, he warmed to her, and to ordinary life.
“We have a very unusual relationship in that most people get to know each other slowly,” Mr. Morton said. “What’s your middle name, what’s your favorite color, all that kind of weird thing. And later on you talk about the dark stuff in your past. We started out the exact opposite. My life has been front-page news. Everybody knows everything about me. I don’t have any secrets. So that was our first-date sort of stuff, and then down the road a couple weeks later, it was like, what’s your middle name? It’s really kind of backward.”
One person who was both awed by their compatibility, and approving of their grown-up courtship, was the church’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Bruce Wells. “It started very slowly in their relationship, and just kind of grew,” Mr. Wells said. “We didn’t really do anything but just provide a place of love and care, particularly for Michael, to take him in. No one really encouraged the relationship. We just happened to be the right place to be of help.”
Several weeks ago, in January, a few days before the one-year anniversary of their first date, he returned to Ms. Chessman’s house after walking her son’s dog. “I had my feet propped up on the recliner,” she said. “And he comes in, he lets the dog back in the laundry room and he says, ‘Put your feet down, would you?’ I thought I was going to get a kiss, and he drops down on one knee instead.”
The couple chose Mr. Wells to perform the ceremony at the First Baptist Church Liberty City. They have postponed their honeymoon, because of a flurry of activity over the next several weeks. They will attend the trial of Mr. Norwood, who is accused of murdering Christine Morton. The trial is scheduled to begin March 18, one week after a documentary about Mr. Morton’s case, “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story,” makes its debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival. “When the trial’s over with, we’re heading to the Caribbean,” Mr. Morton said.
Ms. Chessman, who is taking her husband’s name, is not used to the public eye, and is still amazed when strangers approach him and hug him. “He’ll be walking down the street and someone will run out of a restaurant and go, ‘Michael Morton, yes!’ ” she said. “I love it.”
“He was portrayed as a perverted, hideous, horrible person for so long,” she added. “I love for people to say, ‘You’re a good man, Michael Morton.’ And I look at him and I say, ‘Yes, he is.’ ”