Documentary in Works on Exoneree in Texas Murder
June 24, 2012
AUSTIN, TX — If there is going to be a movie about his wrongful conviction, 25 years in prison and ultimate exoneration, Michael Morton did not want it to begin with the words “Based on a true story.”
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But a documentary feature, particularly one written and directed by two-time Academy Award nominee and former Texan Al Reinert, was something Morton could get behind, and filming began recently.
“Truth is important to me,” he said. “And Al was generous enough to give me a lot of control and truly include me in the way things are done.”
Morton wanted three details to be included in the film: a life-changing conversion experience in prison, a focus on legal-system changes that could prevent future false convictions and an emphasis on his wife, Christine, who was murdered in their Williamson County home in 1986.
“Sometimes my wife gets left out in all the hubbub of me getting out of prison,” he said.
For a quarter-century, only a handful of friends, family and defense lawyers believed Morton did not kill Christine. The case against Morton fell apart last year when new DNA evidence pointed to another suspect and a key piece of forensic evidence — that Christine’s stomach contents pointed to a time of death that implicated only Morton — fell apart under modern scientific scrutiny. He was freed from prison in October.
Filming the documentary began over the Memorial Day weekend in the Georgetown courtroom where Morton was found guilty in 1987.
Morton didn’t expect his return to be a big deal. He was wrong.
“I didn’t think it was haunted or had some kind of evil mojo,” he said. “But actually sitting in there, actually speaking — it was much more emotional than I expected. It really caught me off guard.”
Morton said the overwhelming emotion was one of loss for Christine and his son, Eric, who was 3 when he was arrested and was raised by Christine’s sister.
“We were discussing my wife. They asked me about her, and one of the things pointed out to me is that I never really had time to mourn for her; very soon after her death, I was in survival mode. I sensed some of that,” he said.
“And there was the pain and loss of my son, and just bringing up all that stuff again — people like to think they’re through with it, that they’ve dealt with it OK, that they can move on. But when you have to go back to revisit it — it just caught me off guard.”
Other interviews included Morton’s trial lawyer, William Allison, now a University of Texas law professor; John Raley, one of the lawyers who led efforts for his exoneration; and two jurors from Morton’s 1987 trial.
For Reinert, holding the interviews in the courtroom — which has been restored to its 1920s condition and is no longer in use — was important for more than setting a mood. It helped tell a true story.
“I’ve been in movie business now for about 15 years, and they just don’t do true stories anymore. Hollywood is just not interested in true stories,” Reinert said. “Besides, who’s going to play Michael Morton better than Michael Morton? It just felt like a documentary to me.”
The challenge in telling Morton’s story will be in faithfully portraying the 25 years he spent in prison, said Reinert, an Academy Award nominee for best adapted screenplay in 1996 for “Apollo 13” and for best documentary in 1990 with “For All Mankind,” about the Apollo moon missions.
“At the heart of this story is the 25 years he lost through no fault of his own, and you’ve got to feel those 25 years. There’s no easy way to do it,” Reinert said. “It’s a great story in real life, and if we don’t screw it up, it’s going to be a great movie.”
The film’s working title is “An Unreal Dream,” taken from federal appeals court Judge Learned Hand’s 1923 quote: “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.”
Reinert hopes to have a rough draft ready in October so the documentary can be considered for inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival in January. Local producers include Marcy Garriott, Clark Lyda and Jesse Lyda — who teamed up on “The Least of These,” a 2009 documentary examining family detention policies surrounding illegal immigrants at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor — and Austin lawyer Beverly Reeves.
“It’s a rare combination of this deeply moving and compelling story with a born storyteller, which is Al, and an opportunity to use it as a tool to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people,” Garriott said. “It was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”