Review of Getting Life by Michael Morton
I am a huge fan of shows like 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, 20/20, and Dateline. I never pass up an opportunity to watch one of these shows when they’re on. Such was the case when I happened upon the story of Michael Morton. Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife and spent 25 years in prison before his exoneration. That story alone was enough to capture my attention. But what really made his story so compelling was that it was told by Michael Morton himself, sitting alone in a courtroom. It was one of the most captivating stories I’ve ever seen on TV, or anywhere really. That’s also when I learned that Michael Morton had written a book about his experience.
It’s not often that I would call a book a classic, but Michael’s book Getting Life is just that. Only someone who has lived through such an experience can explain what it was like. When that story is told by a gifted writer, you have the makings of a book that will stand the test of time. I would go as far as to say that this book is a modern day The Count of Monte Cristo.
Michael explains in often moving, poetic prose what it was like to see his life unravel. First his wife is brutally murdered. Then he is blamed and convicted of the murder. His three-year old son is taken from him and raised by the sister of his wife Christine. Michael describes in vivid detail his feelings and emotions as the gravity of what has happened sinks in. He paints an unflattering picture of life behind bars, of the justice system, and his feelings of abandonment and isolation.
As the years pass by things only get worse. His son eventually cuts off all ties with him. He changes his name to that of his adoptive parents. Year after year goes by as Michael sits alone in his bare cell, enduring the inhumane existence of life behind bars. But not all is so dark. Michael tries to make the best of a very bad situation. He takes advantage of education opportunities offered to inmates. He describes his classes as “…an Oasis of sanity in an intellectual desert.” Michael becomes an avid reader. His insatiable appetite for reading allows him to experience life through characters and events outside the prison walls. It offers him an escape from the hell that is prison. It also makes him a better writer.
When the Innocence Project takes on his case, Michael sees a glimmer of hope. But as is the case with so many wrongful convictions, the district attorney, John Bradley, fights all attempts to conduct DNA testing that could exonerate him. Years go by as Michael’s lawyers fight for DNA testing. Years are lost to an unjust criminal justice system unwilling to admit to having made mistakes. But eventually DNA testing is allowed and the real perpetrator is identified. A freedom of information request for the original detective’s investigation notes reveals exculpatory evidence that was not shared with Michael’s original defense team. As it turns out, even though Michael’s son Eric was only three years old, he was old enough to describe what had happened and pin the murder on another individual — a monster as three-year-old Eric describes him. There were reports of a mystery man in a green van seen by neighbors in the days before the murder. All of these details were purposely kept from the defense by prosecutor Ken Anderson. Worst of all, the man identified as Christine’s killer had killed another woman several years later.
Michael’s story is not over when he is finally freed from prison. He describes what it is like to go from a life of isolation and lack of stimulation to a life outside where he has never used a computer or cell phone. He writes about the slow path to reconciliation with his son, who has subsequently married and had a daughter of his own.
Then finally there is a twist not found in most wrongful convictions. The prosecutor who withheld evidence is held responsible. He loses his law license and his job as a judge. Seeing the former prosecutor and judge trying to gain sympathy for his financial losses as a result of his legal defense, without acknowledging his own prosecutorial misconduct, is sweet vindication. Instead of taking responsibility, Ken Anderson blames the system for failing Michael Morton. Then there is the prosecution of Mark Alan Norwood, the real killer.
As good as this book is, I don’t believe it is getting as much recognition as it deserves. For one, the publisher has decided to overprice the eBook. I can see $12.99 for a newly released book, but you can’t justify that price a year later. And despite a documentary called An Unreal Dream, a 60 minutes special, countless positive reviews and media appearances, the book is not doing as well as it should. I hope that changes. This book deserves your time.
After reading the book I watched the documentary An Unreal Dream on Netflix. I recommend doing the same. Seeing Ken Anderson squirm on the witness stand is worth the price of admission.