AUSTIN — Caitlin Baker was 3 when her mother, Debra, was beaten to death and left naked in bed in her Austin home. Although the pain of the loss has faded in the 23 years since, her anger that her mother’s killer was never caught has not.
Now, new DNA testing and the release of case files from an earlier slaying suggest that a prosecutor, who is now a judge, may have withheld evidence that could have implicated the man suspected of killing her mother — before she was killed.
Last week, former grocery store inventory manager Michael Morton was freed after serving nearly 25 years of a life sentence on a wrongful conviction for killing his wife, Christine, in August 1986. Just like Baker, she was found beaten to death in her bed. New DNA testing on evidence collected after both killings linked them to a man with a long arrest record in several states. Authorities are trying to find the suspect, who they haven’t publicly identified, and they haven’t said whether he’s suspected in any other killings.
Morton has maintained throughout his ordeal that his wife was killed by an intruder. The evidence suggests that 17 months later, his wife’s attacker broke into Baker’s home and killed her.
Authorities discovered the DNA connection in the two cases after Morton’s Houston-based attorney, John Raley, teamed up with the New York-based Innocence Project and spent years battling for additional testing of a bloody bandanna found near the Morton home. But they also allege that Morton may never have been convicted if the prosecutor who tried the case, Ken Anderson, hadn’t concealed evidence from the defense.
Among the evidence Morton’s lawyers say Anderson concealed from the defense was a statement that Christine Morton’s mother gave to the lead investigator, police Sgt. Don Wood. She told Wood that her grandson said he watched his mother get killed and that her attacker was a “monster,” not his father, as police suspected.
They say Anderson also didn’t tell Morton’s defense lawyers that Christine Morton’s credit card was used in San Antonio two days after her death and that a forged check in her name was cashed several days later. Michael Morton testified during his trial that his wife’s purse had been taken from
Anderson did not respond to several requests made through his court administrator to discuss the Morton case and address the allegations. Wood has retired and could not be located for comment.
Morton’s attorneys have detailed their accusations in filings before District Judge Sid Harle. John Bradley, the current district attorney for Williamson County, said the Innocence Project’s charges “are just allegations. No one has offered any proof.”
Morton has declined to be interviewed until a Wednesday appeals court ruling overturning the charges against him officially takes effect next month. Prosecutors, when agreeing to the terms of Morton’s release, promised to use that time to investigate allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
“Mr. Morton is entitled, at a minimum, to hold the state to its promise to let him make a limited inquiry as to how and why he was wrongfully convicted in the first place,” Raley wrote.
Unable to question Wood or see his records, the defense asked presiding trial Judge William Lott to review case materials. The Innocence Project contends that Anderson told Lott he’d confer with Wood to ensure the court got all of the investigation records but that Lott only received a fraction of them and never knew about the allegations by the couple’s son or the use of the victim’s credit card
After reviewing the records he did receive, Lott determined that they weren’t relevant to the trial.
With Morton free and cleared of all charges, police have reopened Baker’s mother’s case.
“It hasn’t changed anything yet,” Baker said. “Unless something actually happens I can’t think