“A truly innocent man is the hardest kind of defendant to represent.” This is what Michael Morton’s team of lawyers told him at the beginning of his 25-year ordeal. Yet it is only part of why, in 1987, Michael Morton, a loving husband and doting father, was locked up for a quarter of a century after his wife was savagely beaten to death in their home in a quiet Texas neighborhood. From the time of his initial arrest as a suspect in the murder to the day of his release, Morton was treated like livestock at a slaughterhouse.
He detailed his case in the memoir “Getting Life.” Morton’s innocence didn’t matter to the prosecution team, the sheriff or the police involved in the investigation and indictment. There was evidence that would have proven he didn’t commit the crime, but Williamson County law enforcement intentionally kept it from Morton’s defense team. That meant he would spend more than 20 years in prison until DNA testing technology became sophisticated enough to prove that his wife’s blood was on another man’s hands.
At the time of the crime, the media reported that Morton had bludgeoned his wife to death while she slept. By the time of his wife’s funeral, he’d already lost her side of the family.
And by the time a generation had gone by, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the Twin Towers, he’d lost his son, Eric, “the living embodiment of a marriage that ended too soon and a mother who should still be here.” As a teenager, Eric decided he no longer wanted to participate in twice yearly visits to his father in prison. In the years after his last visit with his son, Morton kept writing to him, even though his son was “like Santa Claus” in the saddest way: He never wrote back.
The reader will likely be on edge throughout the entire section of the book about Morton’s time in prison. Morton evokes the “shrieking emptiness” of life on the inside, punctuated only by his own infinite, and thus heartbreaking, optimism.
It is unfathomable how he got through 25 years in the Texas state prison system, especially because he seems so gentle. In prison, nothing happens quickly except meals and fights. Morton’s visitors recoil in disgust at the prison conditions. The trauma of suicides of inmates and guards alike only adds to the pounding routine of meaningless. “Getting frisked in prison was like shaking hands in the free world — it was simply a regular interaction.”
Since childhood, Morton had not professed religious faith. During his incarceration, one day, he cried out to God and getting no response, felt even more alone.
Then, sometime later, in his cramped, damp cell, in the middle of the night, Morton has an unexpected encounter with God. From then on, he trusted in God to get him through even more heartbreak, bad news and obstructions in legal proceedings.
While the relentless work of pro-bono lawyers at The Innocence Project and the advances in DNA testing technology were what proved Morton’s innocence, it was his stunning perseverance that got him through prison and the judicial system.
Eventually, Morton, his son and daughter-in-law, as well as the legal team that stuck by him for years, attended the trial of the man who murdered Morton’s wife.
While a bit hard to follow at points during the final part of the book, Morton’s story is a nail biter, even knowing something of the end.
His humor is as persistent as his spirit, though it does not mask the crushing, unending pain of losing both a wife and 25 years of life. Reading the book feels like Morton is in your living room, telling you his story; this conversational tone helps remind the reader that this story actually happened to a real person.
Like most things in life, Morton’s story doesn’t end with a neat, little bow. It ends even better than that: with the unfinished, imperfect redemption of a family that was almost torn apart by death and a decades-long detention.
Book Review - Getting Life by Michael Morton