I have worked as a journalist for nearly 40 years and, although I mainly focused on covering religion and cross-cultural issues, I reported on a number of violent crimes through the years. Journalists are professional skeptics and I have conducted my share of interviews with accused men and men, as well as convicted prisoners protesting their innocence. I am rarely swayed to accept their versions of the truth. So, I was astonished by Michael Morton’s story. Beyond his wrongful conviction, I remain in awe of the man’s message to the world today.
Michael Morton (born 1954)
Michael Morton is emerging as a prophet, calling for justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. As an innocent man, who suffered the horrific murder of his wife and then 25 years in prison as her presumed murderer, one might expect Michael’s story to end in long-term trauma and ferocious anger at the world. But in the final scenes of the feature-length documentary film about his life, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, we see Michael reunited with his now-adult son and cradling his granddaughter in his arms. That scene speaks volumes: Michael’s sincerity as a remarkable prophetic voice comes through to us full force.
Michael is sharing his story with the world in ways that are deliberately designed to bring home his three-part message: justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. The documentary film about his life opens with Michael walking slowly into the same Texas courtroom where he was convicted. He sits down in a wooden chair, poised between the defense and prosecution tables and just below the judge’s high bench. This is the setting where all of Michael’s narration throughout this powerful documentary is voiced.
“This is the room where my life changed,” Michael tells us. “It’s where I got convicted of murder.” And even though this setting for his narration is obviously staged for the film, the actual filming clearly affected him more than he expected. Director Al Reinert understood the symbolic power of this real-life setting: the actual courtroom. Before this film, Reinert was best known to American moviegoers for his work on NASA-related movies. He co-wrote the dramatic Ron Howard film, Apollo 13, and then he produced and directed the popular documentary For All Mankind about the overall Apollo program.
Using his considerable talents, Reinert helped Michael to bring his entire story to the world in just 91 minutes of film—including dozens of video clips from the murder case as it unfolded. We learn how, in the 24 hours after Michael’s 32nd birthday, his wife Christine was brutally murdered in their home. Michael claimed innocence and said that it must have been an intruder who broke into their home while he was at work. However, “scientific evidence” that seemed valid in 1986 (but later was revealed as junk science) placed her death in the middle of the night, which made the case that Michael must have been the murderer. Anyone who has watched TV crime dramas “knows” that accused killers often claim that a drifter must have committed the crime. It’s become such a frequent red herring that such claims now are clichés in crime fiction. A drifter did it? Who would believe such a claim?!
However, the shocking truth is that police actually did have some evidence that a drifter might have been involved. They suppressed that evidence. Later, through the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck helped to form a team around Michael that spent years reopening the case. In Texas, the original investigators and prosecutors fought them at every turn, keeping Michael in prison for even more years. Finally, though, DNA evidence revealed that a notorious drifter had indeed killed Michael’s wife. Michael has the unique and powerful message that, not only was he wrongly convicted, but that a real-life killer now has been found guilty of Christine’s murder. What’s even worse: Because law enforcement officials suppressed that evidence, the drifter was able to go on and murder at least one more woman.
Why is Michael included in these profiles of Prophets and Visionaries? Because his faith deepened in his prison years and matured into a rich, inclusive and compassionate faith. Michael tells us how this happened, in the film. Reinert devotes time in the middle of the film to the faith story behind Michael’s transformation.
After his conviction, Michael admits he was filled with hate. We hear from some of his fellow inmates about his initial rage. “He was filled with hate—and he had a reason to be,” says one of them.
Then, Michael began to realize the cost of such rage. One way he describes it: “Revenge and anger is akin to drinking poison yourself—and hoping the other person dies from it.”
Finally, Michael awoke to the true meaning of his faith. He describes that experience, mid-film. It sounds like the story of an ancient prophet. He says, in part: “Why would that happen? I’m not a prophet. I’m not a role model. I’m just a guy in prison. And I came to realize that the simplest thing was that I had cried out to God. ‘I’ve got nothing here!’ And all that happened was that God answered. My life changed.”
The other powerful sequence in the film is the conclusion, which we might describe as “the return of the Prodigal Father.” Groups easily could watch this final sequence of the film and witness all the emotions in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son (with the generational roles reversed). In this case, it is the long-patient son, now an adult, who is in the awkward position of welcoming back his long-lost father.
Just a few of the words from Michael and his son in this sequence …
MICHAEL: “When my son and I first saw each other, we weren’t sure how it was going to go.”
SON: “I just wanted to get it over with.”
MICHAEL: “We shook hands and that morphed into a hug.”
SON: “It was surreal.”
MICHAEL: “The years melted away.”
SON: “When we were able to really talk about our family, everything was cleaned away, everything was wiped away.”
There’s even a scene in the end, when one of the people originally involved in the case extends the lesson to all of us in a Spartacus-like way: “I am Michael Morton.” And: “You are Michael Morton.”
This latter-day prophet has made a difference already. In 2012, Michael told his story in a CBS 60 Minutes special report. In 2013, Texas enacted The Michael Morton Act, which removes barriers to defense teams trying to access the full range of evidence in a case. In recent months, this documentary film has been shown on the CNN network. An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story is now available on DVD via Amazon.