Documenting a Past Nightmare: A Filmmaker’s Perspective on Wrongful Convictions

Joshua Riehl

A wise attorney knows that a license to practice law is both a great privilege and an enormous responsibility. But the exercise of our incredible power can sometimes become mundane; after issuing dozens of subpoenas, one no longer perceives that power as significant. To help us reflect on the responsibility that we bear, TYL offers the perspective of an outsider to our profession— a documentary filmmaker—on the most egregious circumstances of failure by the entire justice system: when an innocent person is convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

It’s a nightmare scenario, straight out of a Hitchcock film. It’s the day after your birthday, you’re at work, and you get a phone call from a law enforcement officer telling you to come home as quickly as possible. Thoughts of horror fill your mind as you drive home. You pull up to your driveway in your sleepy suburban neighborhood. Those nightmarish thoughts turn to reality when you see the yellow police tape cordoning off your house. Unfortunately for Michael Morton, the gruesome murder of his wife Christine was just the beginning of a hellish ride through the criminal justice system. Charged and convicted of his wife’s murder, Morton would spend twenty-five years in prison before his exoneration in 2011.

I was involved in the production of a documentary film about Morton’s story. My experiences on this project gave me a unique view of the criminal justice system in general and of wrongful convictions in particular. For An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, we interviewed Morton, his defense attorney at trial, his attorney on appeal, and two of the jurors who had convicted him. During our interview, under the bright heat of a complicated lighting setup, Morton spoke calmly and thoughtfully as he recounted the loss of his wife, his trial, conviction, and the subsequent loss of his son. Throughout the production of the film and our interactions with Morton, we were moved and affected by his graceful response to having been wrongfully imprisoned for two and a half decades. Yet, it was this calm demeanor that helped lead to Morton’s conviction.

One of the jurors, Lou Bryan, recalled how the jury perceived Morton’s cool, detached behavior as a sign of guilt. The jurors didn’t feel like he showed any emotion, and so the picture of Morton that the state painted made sense.

The state presented a theory that Christine had refused to have sex with Morton on his birthday, before falling asleep. They argued that, in a rage, Morton bludgeoned his wife to death before masturbating over her corpse. The state also offered testimony from Christine’s friends that Morton had a bad temper.

Unfortunately for Morton, a note he had left on the nightstand with a joke about how he was hurt and felt Christine “owed” him sex—she did fall asleep on him the night before—corroborated this theory in the minds of the jurors. Their perception of Morton’s courtroom demeanor allowed them to be convinced that an innocuous joke between husband and wife was a condescending admission of guilt and proof that Morton was capable of murder.

Most can agree that facts should take precedence over how the jury perceives a defendant in determining guilt or innocence, and that, even if one were an unsavory character, as long as the facts supported one’s innocence, an acquittal should be forthcoming. However, in the case of Morton, the state is alleged to have concealed statements to the police made by neighbors and Christine’s mother that may have led to reasonable doubt if introduced at trial. When the lead investigator was not called to testify, Morton’s defense lawyers suspected that the state might be trying to keep information from the jury. Led by Bill Allison, Morton’s lawyers petitioned the judge for access to exculpatory evidence that they believed was withheld at trial and, when that information was turned over, several pieces of evidence had, in fact, been withheld.

Nearly twenty years after the trial, Morton’s post-conviction defense team requested DNA testing of items recovered from the crime scene. When a federal judge ordered that the state turn over the withheld evidence, Morton’s defense team discovered a surprise. Hidden away in those files were police reports that were not produced to Morton’s trial lawyers. The files also contained a report by a neighbor that, around the time of the murder, a man with a mustache was driving a green van around the neighborhood, parking it behind a series of homes. Mark Allen Norwood, the man who was eventually convicted of Christine’s murder (after Morton’s conviction was overturned), drove a green van and was reported to have had a mustache at the time of the murder. In addition, the files contained statements from Christine’s mother that the Mortons’ toddler, Erik, stated that a “monster with a mustache” had killed his mother, and that when she asked him if his father was present, he said no. While these statements alone would not have proven Morton’s innocence, one final piece of evidence that was kept from his attorneys through trial and multiple appeals ended up being the metaphorical smoking gun.

The day after her murder, Christine’s brother was walking through the Mortons’ backyard when he discovered a bloody blue bandana, which he promptly turned in to the investigating police. That bandana’s existence was withheld from Morton’s trial lawyers and his post-conviction relief lawyers through multiple parole hearings. Its existence was only uncovered after he had been in prison for nearly two decades, and even after its discovery, the state fought the defense’s request for DNA testing on the bandana for more than five years. When a federal court finally ordered the testing in 2011, Morton’s lawyers found the proof they had been looking for. On the bloody bandana was the blood of Christine Morton and an unknown male. When the DNA from the male was run against an FBI database, it found a match: Mark Alan Norwood. Morton’s attorneys now had irrefutable proof that their client was innocent.

The prosecutor in the Morton case would eventually spend five days in prison for criminal contempt of court for withholding evidence, after a lengthy inquiry. While those five days pale in comparison to the years Morton lost, it is apparent through the displays of grace and forgiveness that Morton exhibited in both the documentary, and on the film festival circuit, that he no longer holds a grudge against the state.

The scariest thing that I ever heard Morton say in all of the interviews, film festival Q&As, and post-screening meals, was that, as an innocent man, with no real knowledge of the crime, he was utterly useless to his attorneys. Trapped somewhere between a Grisham novel and a Kafka story, his conviction and years served is enough to make you wake up and take notice of the inadequacies in our criminal justice system. Morton’s tale demonstrates how quickly things can become a nightmare for someone caught up in the imperfect nature of the system. Another scary thing that I realized was that it was just as easy for wrongful convictions to be secured as it was to go after the actual perpetrator—and in Morton’s case, it was probably easier.

From my experience in being involved in this case, through the making of this documentary, I have come to believe that, in a nation where “tough on crime” is more than a campaign slogan, careers depend on conviction rates, human error is inevitable, and our criminal justice system can become weighted against the accused. What happened to Morton could happen to anyone. This is just one example of a wrongfully convicted person in America today. And while the case has affected legislative action, there remains much work to be done to ensure that every accused receives a constitutionally guaranteed fair trial.

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Joshua Riehl

Joshua Riehl is a documentary filmmaker based in Detroit, Michigan.