'Unreal Dream' lays bare how wrongfully convicted Texan lost everything but his innocence
AUSTIN, Texas - Handcuffed and being bundled into a police car after his conviction for killing his wife, Michael Morton called out to a nearby cluster of reporters.
"I didn't do this," the Texan cried, his dazed voice filled more with confusion than anger or heartbreak. "I did not do this."
Nobody believed him.
In "An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story," writer/director and two-time Oscar nominee Al Reinert offers an unflinching look at how Morton was wrongfully convicted of murder and had his only son disown him as he served a life sentence. It lays bare how the Austin grocery store inventory manager lost everything — except the fact that he was innocent — but was finally exonerated in 2011 by new DNA evidence after nearly a quarter century behind bars.
On Monday, another man, Mark Norwood, goes on trial for the murder of Morton's wife Christine, who was beaten to death in her bed in August 1986. Norwood has also been linked to a similar 1988 slaying of another woman, Debra Masters Baker, sparking speculation that authorities allowed him to kill again while wrongfully focusing on Morton.
The district attorney who helped send Morton to prison, Ken Anderson, has been accused of withholding evidence that could have helped the defence. Anderson is now a state district judge and faced a court of inquiry, a proceeding held to examine alleged wrongdoing by court officials. A decision in that matter may come next month.
Asked about Anderson following a screening of "An Unreal Dream" at the South By Southwest film festival this week, Morton said it's "not a personal, visceral hatred I have for him."
"I had to literally let that go. I've had a lot of time to do that," Morton said. "But, at the same time, there needs to be accountability."
Two jurors from Morton's trial appear in the movie and say they were struck by the defendant's lack of emotion, in contrast to Anderson's commanding courtroom presence.
The state alleged that Morton flew into a rage and killed Christine because she fell asleep without having sex with him on his 32nd birthday. Tears ran down the district attorney's face as he claimed Morton masturbated over his wife's body.
Morton explained after the movie that he was putting on a brave face in court for his son Eric, who was 3 when his mother was killed. He said he was also grieving his wife and worrying about possibly losing his job and his home — which didn't leave him with much emotion left to display for the jury.
But Morton remains unassuming even today, often appearing surprised that his story has garnered so much attention.
"There's a part of me that has worried he'd turn into some kind of celebrity and he hasn't done that," said Reinert, the writer/director. "He hasn't become egotistical, he hasn't become mean-spirited, he hasn't become selfish. He's remained incredibly level-headed."
The movie is screening for a third and final time Saturday in Austin, but is being shopped for eventual wider release nationally.
Morton said he wanted it to focus on his wife's life, flaws in the legal system and his experience being touched by God in prison.
Morton's religious experience came in 2001, amid his darkest days. That's when his son wrote to say he was being formally adopted by his aunt and uncle on his mom's side and changing his last name.
"When I lost him," a choked-up Morton says in the documentary, "that's what broke me."
The movie details how Houston attorney John Raley and the New York-based Innocence Project spent years fighting for DNA testing on a bloody bandanna discovered near the Morton home shortly after Christine's slaying. John Bradley, an Anderson protege who was then district attorney, argued it would "muddy the waters."
In 2010, Morton had a chance to be paroled — but would have had to admit remorse for a crime he didn't commit. "All I had left," he says in the movie, "is my actual innocence."
When DNA testing finally confirmed the truth, Bradley sent an email to Eric Morton saying his father was likely to be released. "I was almost rude in my response," Eric Morton recalls into the camera. "There was no room in my life for this."
But since then, he and his father have slowly begun to reconcile. Christine Morton's family, however, does not appear in the documentary.
"They spent 25 years hating this man and they just can't turn it around that quick," Reinert said.
Morton, who got remarried last weekend, has become an advocate for reforming the Texas legal system to better guard against wrongful convictions. He visited the floor of the state Senate this week and received an apology from Sen. John Whitmire, who heads the chamber's Criminal Justice Committee.
Morton said his efforts at legal reform are more rewarding than proving his innocence because, as he notes in the documentary, "Vindication was very, very good. But it was something I knew all along."