Michael Morton, a Sam Houston State University alumnus, spent 25 years imprisoned for a murder he did not commit—the murder of his own wife. Morton will speak to students and faculty on the campus of his alma mater for the first time about his experiences this afternoon.
The event is hosted by the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics and sponsored by the history department, criminal justice department, political science department, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Student Legal and Mediation Services.
Mike Yawn, political science professor and LEAP Center Director, said Morton’s story is unique because he represents the “common man.”
“Morton is often seen as an everyman, an average person,” Yawn said. “He had no prior convictions, wasn’t involved in illegal activities, didn’t hang out with people who normally commit crimes or any of the other things that you would expect to make a person more likely to be wrongly convicted. He was just a victim of a prosecution and law enforcement group that didn’t thoroughly do their jobs, and then withheld information. It’s an illustration that this can and does happen.”
Morton, a husband and father, was convicted of killing his wife the day after his birthday in 1986. He ultimately spent 25 years in prison until The Innocence Project intervened, proving the withholding of evidence and a wrongful conviction.
Morton was released from prison Oct. 4, 2011 and exonerated Dec. 19, 2011 and eventually inspired the enactment of the “Michael Morton Act.”
“His story led to the passage of a couple of bills that are known as the Michael Morton Act,” Yawn said. “They purport to strengthen and enhance the discovery process. I don’t know what the effect of that ‘act’ will be, but at the very least, I think his case should make people more aware of the fact that this can happen.”
While in prison in Huntsville, Morton studied at SHSU under Jerry Bruce, Ph.D., associate dean of CHSS.
“Michael was in one or two of my classes late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Bruce said. “He was a very good student. Teaching at the prison was very much like teaching on campus only the students did better on the exams, were more interested in the subject matter and participated more in class discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was sorry to see it go.”
According to Yawn, Morton’s educational background also sets him apart. In the last four years since his exoneration, Morton has written his own book “Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace” and has also starred in a documentary about his life “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.” On April 11, Morton won the Texas Institute of Letters award for “Best Nonfiction Book.”
“Morton, being educated and articulate, has some important insights into the correctional system,” Yawn said. “The strongest parts of his book were his insights into the prison system, the behaviors that constituted coping mechanisms for survival, and the impact the prison has on the inmates.
In recent months, Yawn took four students to see Morton in action. Megan Chapa, vice president of finance and operation for LEAP and political science and Spanish double major sophomore, was one of those individuals.
“As an aspiring attorney and politician, I believe [Morton’s] story is important because it demonstrates the importance of maintaining integrity and honesty in the law and in the law-making profession,” Chapa said. “John Raley and The Innocence Project joined together to seek justice for Mr. Morton—this gives aspiring attorneys a great example of moral character.”
According to Bruce, Morton’s story can serve as a lesson for not just the criminal justice system but for society as a whole.
“I think we all need to come to an awareness of the ‘injustice’ that often operates in the criminal justice system,” Bruce said. “For many the court becomes like a tennis court; winning is all that matters. And for many of the players, it is like a score-card where the number of wins become the issue, not justice. To have persons who have undergone such horrendous treatment at the hands of the justice system and to return to life without a great deal of anger and resentment is a model from which we can all learn. Maybe it will help some persons to see that ‘just because a person is in prison’ does not make that person somehow qualitatively different from the rest of us.”
Yawn said he expects Morton to speak to students of his conviction, experiences in prison and his life since release.
“If ever [a] man deserved to be bitter, it’s Michael Morton,” Yawn said. “And if his book, his public demeanor or my conversations are true to his personality, he’s a well-adjusted individual. And that’s a good model for all of us.”
The event will take place in the CHSS room C070 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. followed by a book signing. Students can reserve a spot by emailing Yawn at email@example.com.