A Texas appeals court on Wednesday formally exonerated a man who spent nearly 25 years in prison for his wife's 1986 fatal beating, reaffirming a judge's decision to set him free last week after DNA tests linked the killing to another man.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared Michael Morton innocent of killing his wife, Christine, and made him eligible to receive $80,000 from the state for each year of confinement, or about $2 million total.
Morton, 57, was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained over the years that his wife and their 3-year-old son were fine when he left for work at an Austin grocery store on the day she was killed, and that an intruder must have attacked her.
DNA found this summer during testing on a bloody bandanna recovered near the crime scene matched that of a man who authorities say has a criminal record in several states. When it was also matched to DNA recovered from the scene of a north Austin woman's 1988 unsolved beating death, prosecutors recommended that Morton be freed immediately.
Authorities have not publicly identified the suspect linked to the two killings because they say they are trying to locate and arrest him.
Morton was released Oct. 4, but not formally cleared of all charges until the Wednesday's ruling.
Nina Morrison, an attorney for the New York-based Innocence Project, which spent years fighting for the genetic testing of the evidence that wasn't possible during Morton's original trial, said she called Morton to tell him about the ruling.
"It's been an incredible week for him. Something he only dreamed about all those years in prison," she said. "He is so thrilled that the truth has finally come out. He's anxious to get on with his life."
Morrison said that John Bradley, the district attorney in Williamson County, where Morton was convicted, announced Wednesday he will not file new charges. Still, Morton technically remains on parole and won't be allowed to leave Texas until the appeals court's ruling takes effect in 30 days.
"But obviously, he knows now the courts have spoken," Morrison said. "The prosecutor in Williamson County has finally said he's innocent."
Morton has declined interview requests, and the Innocence Project said he doesn't plan to speak publicly about his case until the appeals court decision takes effect. He is living with his parents in Gregg County, near the Louisiana border and far from Williamson County.
The Innocence Project has accused the prosecutor who originally handled the case, Ken Anderson, of deliberately concealing non-DNA evidence that likely would have helped Morton avoid being convicted in the first place. Anderson, who is now a district judge in Williamson County, has not responded to repeated requests for comment made through his court administrator.
Morrison said the defense is working with Bradley's office to investigate allegations of prosecutorial wrongdoing, and will continue to do so over the next month. Among the evidence the Innocence Project says Anderson kept from Morton's defense lawyers were statements Christine Morton's mother made to police, in which she said her grandson told her he watched his mother get killed and that it wasn't his father who killed her.