Oh yeah, and a visit from God

A reader sent in this very good NPR story about Michael Morton, a man who was freed from a life sentence in prison for murdering his wife after 25 years. He was exonerated thanks to exculpatory DNA evidence. But the story is about much more than one of the many men who have been freed thanks to DNA evidence. Morton and his advocates want the people who withheld some of the evidence that would have cast doubt on his guilt held accountable.

Here’s a sample:

From the tip about the credit card to the man in the green van behind the Morton house to Eric’s eyewitness account of his mother’s murder — all of this evidence was withheld from both the judge in the case and the defense attorneys.

And so Morton didn’t get to see Eric grow up. When Eric was 12, he stopped seeing his father in prison. When he was 18, he changed his last name from Morton. That broke his father’s spirit. Fourteen years into his life sentence, Morton hit absolute bottom.

“The things that I was hanging on to in the world, and he was it. When that was gone, I just cratered,” he says. “When you are completely without hope, when you are completely without any avenue of escape, when you’re not sure of any reason to go on, I cried out to God. I said, ‘OK, I’m done. I got nothing.’ ”

How was Morton finally freed? His wife’s brother had found the bloody bandanna the police left later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton’s requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they’d consider DNA testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for the crime.

Now, the reader who submitted the article also sent a link to this interview of Morton, by the same reporter.

You should read the original article (or, I guess, listen to it) and then listen to the second link, and then come back and read from here on out. At the end of the first piece, listeners are encouraged to go to the NPR web site and listen to the second link. I thought some of the comments to the audio of the second story are interesting:

Page Cvelich (Pagie) wrote:

I am always curious what gets left off the air. As I was listening to Mr. Simon’s parting comment about an “emotional” situation that Mr. Morton experienced in his jail cell, I decided to go online suspecting that it was probably something spiritual. I was right. What I wonder about is why this was labeled “emotional” or why it was left out of the story. Does it cause shame or embarassment in some way? I think most folks these days are looking for a larger narrative to understand how to make sense of the craziness of this life. Just like in the book, Unbroken, when Zamparini (sp?) had a complete life change due to a religous conversion after being returned from WWII as a POW. Even my non-religious book club wonders why these parts of the story get pushed to the side or hidden in radio or TV interviews. As humans, we desperately need to hear a larger narrative. We can choose to believe or not, but give us that chance to make up our own minds. As the boy asked the insurance investigators at the end of Life of Pi, “Which is the better story?”, let us be able to choose by providing the whole story.

Other listeners weighed in, too:

Catherine Montalbo (CatherineMontalbo) wrote:

Page, the first thought that leapt into my mind at the end of the story was, “Oh, they are leaving me hanging because they want me to go to the NPR web site.” Well, it worked!

Athena Murphy (truepowersecret) wrote:

Page: In regards to your question, my guess, after hearing the separate audio, is that it was edited for time, not for any “spiritual” reasons. (I’d love to see an answer to my guess from the staff.)

Considering the length of Mr. Goodwyn’s story, and the amount of facts they had to fit it to inform the listener, it makes sense that they cut out anything not “on the spine” of the narrative, knowing many of us would come to the website to listen. The original story is a deeply moving, fact-laden and intense listen. I think adding any additional emotion to it would have bogged it down.

When I heard the story on the air, I was emotional enough! I don’t think I could have taken a whole lot more. This very poigniant moment for Mr. Morton had a presence and depth of its own, and if it was a choice of “cut it all together to fit the show timeline” or run it separately on the web, then I’m glad they chose to place it on the web.

I’m surprised that NPR gets slammed for editing spiritual content, given that it’s one of the few media outlets around that has a full-time “religion correspondent” and airs many stories specifically about spirituality and religion.

patti lepre (patch19) wrote:

I too wished Mr Morton’s visit from God would have been included as part of the story. It struck me odd that all it received was a “you can go to our website to hear about it blah blah…” Fantastic story, poor choice to omit such a vital piece.

They raise many interesting points. What did you think about the choice to separate out that powerful second audio from the original story?

Photo of jail cell via Shutterstock.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Obviously Mr. Morton didn’t think his conversion was secondary to the story. It’s what sustained him despite the false accusation and his son abandoning him. As one of the listeners suggested, there is embarrassment for secular outlets — “God?!? You’ve got to be kidding me! Not another person with religious superstitions that we have to take seriously so those Get Religionistas don’t rip into us!” So why should NPR think it’s secondary?

    But there are other issues for me even with the second part — ghosts of all kinds. He talked about a gradual conversion — what did that mean? What is his faith practice now? Did he receive any kind of support from other Christians in the prison or from some kind of chaplaincy — Prison Fellowship, perhaps? Is he doing any kind of outreach to prisoners? Has he reached out to the man now accused of killing his wife? Has he forgiven that man or attempted it?

    But I have an even more basic question to ask — do these kinds of questions even arise in secular reporters’ minds? Since they have not the experience for it, do they even know what to ask? If, as the listener suggested, they’re embarrassed by this, are they even going to want to pursue the ideas to raise the questions? Am I asking legitimate questions?

  • rob in williamson county

    I live in the county in which this travesty of justice occurred…and I am currently very active in a campaign to unseat the District Attorney that worked so hard to keep Mr. Morton behind bars.

    The local paper ran a video interview with Mr. Morton that was fantastic. Although you should listen to the entire video (about 11 minutes long), he describes his conversion experience beginning at approximately 7:56. The quiet intensity with which Mr. Morton decribes his conversion sends chills down my spine–not in a negative way, but because of how powerful it is.


  • SouthCoast

    I think, perhaps, in all fairness, that someone, particularly someone who is predominantly what might be termed “secular-minded”, and who has not had such an experience, might simply be baffled as to what to do with the narrative. (It can be difficult enough to try and relay the experience fully and with justice in the first person.) Which doesn’t necessarily make for good journalism, but, at least in this instance, the easy out of sarcasm or ridicule was eschewed.

  • Jerry

    I have a slightly different perspective. Too often the entire story is never revealed. So I give NPR credit for having that link so that people could find out more. We’d be a lot better off if that were common practice. I also agree that the presentation and linkage could have been a bit better but at least it was there.

    I do agree that the story could have been a bit better organized than it was. Just adding a few words about religion would have helped.

    Page Cvelich made an important point that is ignored in the media when she wrote about her non-religious book club being interested in the larger narrative. I wish the media would pay attention to even non-religious people being interested in the larger narrative which includes God and religion.

    And Athena Murphy made a key point: we can and should give kudos to the public broadcasting system for generally doing better than the commercial outlets in covering religion news. I’m specifically thinking of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly but stories like this one also count heavily in my view. And this coverage makes me a strong supporter of the public broadcasting system against attempts to kill it.