By Linc Leifeste | October 18, 2013
Director: Al Reinert
Writers: John Dean, Nellie Gonzalez, Al Reinert
I was going to start off this review by talking about what a powerful cautionary tale An Unreal Dream is, about how it might make you stop and think about how easily your life could be destroyed at the drop of a hat by a false accusation, how you could receive every supposed protection in our legal system and still wind up spending your life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit (or worse here in the great state of Texas, wind up being executed for a crime you didn’t commit), but then I had second thoughts. Not that An Unreal Dream is not that, but it is also so much more. It is the excruciatingly painful story of one man’s horrific loss at the hands of a violent criminal followed by the unthinkable loss of his freedom, his son and 25 years of his life at the hands of a corrupt and broken legal system. And amazingly it’s the story of how his unwavering faith that the truth would come out was rewarded by the good will and persistence of a small handful of people who refused to let Michael Morton be forever lost within the abyss of an uncaring system.
If you’re not familiar with Michael Morton’s story I highly recommend you set aside an hour or so and sit down with Pamela Colloff’s excellent but lengthy Texas Monthly piece, “The Innocent Man.” For now, here’s the short version. Early on the morning of August 13, 1986, Morton left his sleeping wife Christine and three-year-old son Eric in their Round Rock, TX, home to go to work. Shortly thereafter, his wife was violently bludgeoned to death in her bed by an intruder. Early on in its investigation, the Williamson County sheriff’s department zeroed in on Morton as the sole suspect despite Morton having no criminal history, no history of violence, and the complete lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime.
Six weeks after the murder, Morton was arrested and in February, 1987, he was found guilty by a jury of his peers of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison. How is that possible, you ask? All it took was circumstantial evidence accompanied by a determined and imaginative prosecution from charismatic, passionate D.A. Ken Anderson, who posited the theory that Christine’s murder was prompted by her refusal to give her husband birthday sex, combined with an unscientific estimate (presented as scientific fact) of Christine’s time of death. Oh, and a bit of withheld evidence. What makes all of this even more disturbing is that, unlike a lot of these types of stories, Morton did not have an incompetent and uncaring lowly paid public defender looking out for him in court but instead had a well respected and competent defender, Bill Anderson, whose services Morton had sought out pre-arrest when it became clear to him that he was being investigated as the prime suspect.
Luckily for Morton, he wasn’t accused of committing a capital murder (murdering while committing another crime) and was thus spared the possibility of the death penalty. Otherwise his story might have come to a very different and very permanent sad end. Instead, Bill Anderson was haunted by his unshakable belief that his client was innocent, and eventually sought out the help of the Innocence Project, who in 2005 took on his case and used DNA testing to prove his innocence. It turns out that the police had found a bloody bandana behind the Morton property but bizarrely had decided it wasn’t of value and left it behind. But Christine’s brother also found it later that day and turned it in as evidence. That bloody bandana, neglected by the police despite it being in what should have been an area of interest based on other withheld evidence, is ultimately what ended Morton’s prison sentence after 25 years when DNA testing showed it contained Christine’s blood mixed with the DNA of a man other than Michael Morton.
All of this is hard enough to believe but what makes it all so much worse is that it took five years of begging, legal wrangling and dogged determination by Houston attorney John Raley and other Innocence Project lawyers before an appellate court ordered that Williamson County allow the testing to go forward in 2010, something Williamson County D.A. John Bradley fought tirelessly to prevent. Why? In his words, he felt the DNA testing “would just muddy the waters.” In his defense, he did at one point make the “gracious” offer of allowing the testing if Morton would first admit his guilt. Shockingly, the DNA was entered into a database and it was found to be that of Mark Alan Norwood, a man with a long and violent criminal record, and was found to match DNA from a similar unsolved murder that took place in Austin just a year after Christine’s murder.
An Unreal Dream allows Morton to tell his own story in his own voice via voice-overs and interviews while also allowing important players such as attorneys Bill Anderson and John Raley to powerfully narrate their own experiences with Morton and his case. The film also shines a painful light on Morton’s time in prison, including lengthy interviews with multiple of his prison-mates who became convinced of his innocence and were touched by his noble and generous spirit during his incarceration. And most touchingly, the film details the sad case of Morton’s son Eric, who was adopted by Christine’s sister’s family and grew up mistakenly convinced that his own father had murdered his mother. The film also admirably captures the failings of our legal system and society, illustrating the perils of rampant ineptitude, indifference and to put it bluntly, stupidity (an interview with a juror explaining how the defense didn’t prove Morton’s innocence is particularly painful to watch). Combine all of that with authority figures full of assured self-righteousness and with little to no oversight (hello, Ken Anderson and John Bradley), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately, thanks to the tireless efforts of a handful of people, Morton’s story had a happy ending and he was able to start his life over again, renew his relationship with his son, remarry and, thanks to his indomitable spirit and religious conversion, use his experiences as motivation to better our legal system instead of allowing himself to be destroyed by bitterness and hate. I recommend you also take time to watch Incendiary: The Willingham Case, another recent documentary that tells an equally shocking true story about the legal system of the great State of Texas and features a few of the same players, minus the same happy ending. Combined, the two could very well open some eyes to the possibility that this kind of nightmare could become real for anybody at any time (both of these cases involve white men, unlike the vast majority of DNA exonerees in Texas who are black, and whose cases for some odd reason don’t garner as much public attention and outrage) and the near certainty that there are people now in prison or who have already been executed in this state and this nation for crimes they didn’t commit.