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Featured Case

Michael Morton

The Impact of the Michael Morton Case

Few legal cases fundamentally redefine a practice of law and impact all the citizens in a state.

The Michael Morton case is one of them. It changed criminal defense work in the state of Texas. And the man who founded and leads our firm, Rusty Hardin, played an important role in it.

Because of the work he did and the reforms that followed, defense attorneys in Texas now have access to all the evidence prosecutors and law enforcement agencies find in their investigations, even evidence that might point to the innocence of the accused.

But it wasn’t always that way. And Michael Morton paid a high price – nearly 25 years of his life – for it.

The Crime and The Trial

In August 1986, at their home in Austin, Michael Morton’s wife, Christine, died in her bed, beaten to death by her attacker. Michael wasn’t there when it happened. He came home from work to find his home cordoned off with crime-scene tape.

There was plenty of evidence pointing in a direction other than his; a mysterious green van that had been spotted in the area, a questionable charge on one of the deceased woman’s credit cards, a forged signature on a check.

Most importantly, there was the statement from Michael Morton’s three-year-old son, Eric, who witnessed the attack and told his grandmother a monster – not his father – had killed his mother.

But the defense never knew about any of that evidence because prosecutors never gave it to them. Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife and sent to prison for life.

Years in Prison

Years go by. There are motions for a new trial and requests to reexamine evidence, perhaps do DNA testing. They’re denied and appealed, and then the appeals are denied.

Finally, in 2011, testing on evidence found at the crime scene turns up DNA from Christine Morton and a man other than her husband Michael. Four months later, a court releases Michael Morton and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declares him innocent.

Prosecutors eventually focus on another man, Mark Alan Norwood, who would be charged and convicted in Christine’s murder.

Special Prosecutor Rusty Hardin

In the aftermath, the Supreme Court of Texas created a court of inquiry to investigate the Morton case. And the presiding judge chose Rusty Hardin as Special Prosecutor to lead the investigation.

Rusty is uniquely positioned for this kind of work. An accomplished criminal defense attorney and staunch defender of his clients and their rights, he also spent over 15 years as an Assistant District Attorney in Houston. He understands the role of a prosecutor and knows – because he has done it – that sometimes the D.A. must set aside a case if the evidence isn’t there.

He also knows that prosecutors, who can deprive someone of their rights and put them in prison, carry the highest of ethical obligations.

Rusty’s investigation found the hidden evidence – the green van, the credit card, the check and the statement from Michael Morton’s son.

It also found that the district attorney who had prosecuted the case – he was a state district court judge by this point – willingly hid the evidence indicating Michael was innocent. When it was over, the former prosecutor was forced to surrender his license to practice law and serve 10 days in jail.

"File: Senator Rodney Ellis, Michael Morton, staff, and supporters, April 2013.jpg" by Rodneyellis is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

The Michael Morton Act

Michael Morton was there when Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed the Michael Morton Act, requiring prosecutors in Texas to turn over all evidence to defense attorneys, even evidence that might prove the innocence of the accused.

Rusty Hardin considers the case to be one of the major events of his career. Because it changed the way criminal defense cases play out in Texas. Because it made the system far more transparent.

And it improved the criminal justice system for everyone.

Michael Morton Act: A Co-Author on Rusty Hardin

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis knows the value of using the legislative process to fix the legal process. It's one of the reasons, why as a member of the Texas Senate, he co-authored the Michael Morton Act.

Here, Commissioner Ellis, discusses the role Rusty Hardin played in making the act a reality, and how it changed the course of justice in the state of Texas.

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