Michael Morton’s remarkable story of wrongful conviction for the 1986 murder of his wife Christine, his 25 years of incarceration, and his exoneration, will be told to a national audience when the documentary “An Unreal Dream,” written and directed by two-time academy award nominee, Al Reinert, premiers on CNN tomorrow night, Thursday, December 5, at 9:00 p.m. ET and PT. According to CNN (here) the documentary seeks to “demonstrates that Morton’s story is not unique.”
Morton’s case has become unusually high-profile with uncommon reach and impact in part because Michael Morton has been an articulate and effective spokesman. While his story is compelling on many levels, he has often made the point that what happened to him has happened to others, and—until we fully commit to the goal of accuracy in criminal justice—can happen to anyone.
Morton had many opportunities to tell his story to writers and directors, but as referenced earlier on the Wrongful Conviction Blog (here) he had requirements.
Above all, he wanted the portrayal to be the truth, as accurate as possible. He insisted that any presentation emphasize his wife, Christine, the murder victim bludgeoned to death in their Williamson County home. He wanted to include his life-changing faith conversion experienced in prison. Finally, he urged a focus on criminal justice reforms required if we are to reduce wrongful convictions.
According to CNN, the documentary not only portrays Morton’s “stirring strength and perseverance” but also expands awareness of the far-reaching impact of each wrongful conviction, demonstrated by Michael’s tragic estrangement from his son and family and the subsequent murder of another young mother when the true perpetrator of Christine Morton’s murder escaped justice.
“An Unreal Dream” also illustrates the enormous human and financial resources—the persistent and heroic efforts of pro bono lawyers, investigators, and others—required to achieve exoneration after conviction.
The daunting hurdles to proving innocence post-conviction prompt widespread belief among those who research miscarriages of justice that the exonerated represent a small percentage of those who remain wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. History suggests these likely include persons on death row.
The Innocence Project reports (here) that 18 of 311 people exonerated by DNA served time on death row and another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, is currently reporting 1,252 exonerations since 1989. These include both DNA-proven exonerations and exonerations that occur when “a defendant who was convicted of a crime was later relieved of all legal consequences of that conviction through a decision by a prosecutor, a governor or a court, after new evidence of his or her innocence was discovered.” (See full report here, page 7.)
Of the 1,252 exonerations reported on the National Registry of Exonerations (here), 570 were wrongful murder convictions and 105 of these resulted in a sentence of death. Exoneration prevented the implementation of the ultimate punishment in these cases.
The title for the Michael Morton documentary, “An Unreal Dream,” references federal appeals court Judge Learned Hand’s statement in 1923, “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.”
This mistaken belief has been a stubborn myth that has slowed our nation’s recognition of the scope of wrongful convictions and fueled recurring contributors to miscarriages of justice. The national airing of Michael Morton’s story on CNN will once again debunk the notion that our system does not err, a critically important recognition as we advance toward our nation’s full promise of justice for all.