Michael Morton and Nelson Mandela probably never heard about one another and most certainly never met. But, the two men have at least one thing in common: they both spent several years in jail for crimes they never committed.
On August 13, 1986, Morton returned to his home in Williamson County, Texas, just outside Austin, to find his wife, Christine, dead. She had been murdered. The couple’s 3-year-old son, Eric, was unharmed. Although he was at work – and could account for his time – authorities immediately suspected Morton killed her. They certainly didn’t waste any time in charging and then convicting him of her death. The Mortons had celebrated Michael’s 32nd birthday at a restaurant the night before. Prosecutors believed Michael had killed Christine in fit of rage; they found a note in the bathroom from Michael to Christine expressing disappointment that she didn’t have sex with him as part of the birthday revelry. They read the note aloud in the courtroom – conveniently leaving Michael’s closing words, ‘I love you.’
Six months after the crime, Morton was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. While omitting Michael’s own written words – ‘I love you’ – from the record seems tacky at best, then-Williamson County district attorney Ken Anderson had deliberately neglected to mention something even more critical to Morton’s defense team: police had confiscated a bloody bandana from outside the Morton home the day after Christine had been found dead.
There were other things. Eric had been present during his mother’s murder and described the crime scene in striking detail to both family members and police. More importantly, he’d insisted his father was not the culprit; describing him instead as a “monster.” Neighbors told police they’d seen a man repeatedly park a green van on the street behind the Morton home and disappear into a nearby wooded area days before the murder. Police also discovered that Christine’s missing Visa card may have turned up at a San Antonio jewelry store. A San Antonio police officer stated he could identify the woman who’d attempted to use it.
In 2011, DNA on the bandana pointed to a possible assailant: Mark Norwood. Norwood lived near the Mortons in 1986 and had a criminal record. Analysts then determined that a pubic hair found at the Morton crime scene was similar to a hair found at the site of another murder, Debra Masters, in neighboring Travis County. Both hairs ultimately were linked to Norwood. In December of 2011, a judge ordered Morton released from jail.
Today, Morton has reconnected with his son and is still trying to put his life back together. “Vindication is very, very good,” he says. “But, it’s something I knew all along.”
Half a world away, on another continent in another time, Nelson Mandela was also charged and convicted of a crime. He dared to demand respect and equal treatment from the White-dominated government of his homeland. Although no one had been killed, Mandela’s transgression was so offensive that officials imprisoned him for nearly three decades.
The circumstances surrounding the Morton and Mandela cases are different in most ways. But, in the end, both men did something that surprised those around them: they offered forgiveness to the very people who had trampled upon their humanity.
As the world mourns Mandela’s passing, I’m struck by the enormity of his compassion. Instead of hate, he offered loved. Instead of revenge, he sought unity. Surely, he was angry upon his release from prison. That would be a natural reaction from anyone. But, Mandela knew the animosity that rattled his conscious could easily consume his soul. He chose to pursue reconciliation.
Think about it. You spend many years in prison merely because you wanted to live your life free of terror and oppression. Then, when you’re finally released, you offer your captors forgiveness and seek to build a unified society.
That’s essentially the story of Nelson Mandela in the last half-century of his life. The racist South African government imprisoned him in 1963 because he dared to demand respect and equal treatment. It’s a tale that played out across much of Africa, as well as other parts of the world: the descendants of European interlopers colonized the region and sought to destroy the indigenous peoples. When they couldn’t, they marginalized them as much as possible.
Forgiveness is as complicated as the word is long. It’s not easy for most people. I know I have the nasty habit of holding grudges. It’s always been difficult for me to forgive people, especially when they haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing and asked to be forgiven. I certainly won’t forget stuff some people have done to me. But, forgiveness? That’s a stretch.
I’m still angry with the treatment I received at the hands of my superiors in the final year I worked at an engineering company. I felt trapped in that job, and it was actually a relief when I got laid off. But, I can forgive them for it. Yes, it was a life-changing event, but at least I wasn’t thrown in prison.
I’m also still resentful of the way some of my cousins treated my father in the battle over my grandmother’s estate. They didn’t threaten him, or say anything outright vulgar. But, I felt they disrespected him. Forgive them? Maybe.
In most ways, I’ve viewed forgiveness as a sign of weakness. It’s like giving in; admitting that they were right to do or say crap to you; to disrespect and mistreat you. It’s conceding that you overreacted and took things too seriously. If you spontaneously forgive somebody, I’d always told myself, you’re just giving up and handing a victory to the other side.
Here’s what’s easy though – hate. It’s actually quite easy to harbor anger and resentment. It takes less thought. It’s easier to pick up a rock and hurtle it through a window, instead of putting it back down. It’s easier to call someone every foul name that comes to mind, instead of saying, “I don’t have time to waste on you.” Pulling the trigger of a gun doesn’t take much cerebral acumen. Offering words of love and encouragement does.
Michael Morton merely wanted to reunite with his son and now makes the best of his new-found freedom. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned for a manufactured criminal act; he spent the last 23 years of his life working to create a better world for everyone. No, the two men never met, and their lives couldn’t be more different. But, their personal stories reveal so much about hope and peace. It says everything about the greatness of humanity.