Why Do Police Sometimes Insist on Convicting the Wrong Person?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 4 2012 5:21 PM

The Dark Dangers of Tunnel Vision

Why police and prosecutors suspect the wrong person—and then dig in.

Man in handcuffs.
Man in handcuffs.

Photodisc/Thinkstock.

The best magazine piece I’ve read this year is by Pamela Colloff, in Texas Monthly, about the murder conviction of Michael Morton and the 25 years he spent in a Texas prison as prosecutors insisted he’d killed his wife, despite the mounting proof that he hadn’t. You really have to read this story for yourself—it’s movie material; it’s that riveting. I want to pull on one thread of Colloff’s narrative, because I’ve seen it in the weave of many other wrongful conviction cases. I’m talking about tunnel vision: the tendency of investigators to seize on an early piece of evidence that appears to implicate the defendant, and to hold on to their belief in his guilt even as other evidence points to his innocence. It’s a problem that by definition emerges in hindsight. What’s scary is how tenaciously police and prosecutors cling to their initial assumptions—and how much this reflects basic human tendencies.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

On an August afternoon in 1986, Christine Morton was found lying on her bed, bludgeoned to death. A neighbor had seen her 3-year-old son Eric walking around the family’s front yard by himself; she searched the house and called the police.

When Sheriff Jim Boutwell arrived, he found this note, signed “I L Y,” for I love you, and “M,” for Michael, who was Christine’s husband.

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Chris, I know you didn’t mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies. Then, with your nightgown around your waist and while I was rubbing your hands and arms, you farted and fell asleep. I’m not mad or expecting a big production. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into another fight about sex. Just think how you might have felt if you were left hanging on your birthday.

Colloff explains that based on the note, which established Michael’s anger with his wife in the hours before she was killed, “Boutwell treated Michael not like a grieving husband but like a suspect.” Boutwell read Morton his Miranda rights and began questioning him. Michael answered without emotion, which “did not help to dispel the sheriff’s suspicion that the murder had been a domestic affair.” Colloff continues:

Odd details about the crime scene only reinforced his hunch. There were no indications of a break-in, a fact that Boutwell would repeat to the media in the weeks to come. (Though it was true that there were no signs of forced entry, the sliding-glass door in the dining area was unlocked.) Robbery did not appear to have been the motive for the crime; Christine’s purse was missing, but her engagement ring and wedding band were lying in plain sight on the nightstand. Other valuables, like a camera with a telephoto lens, had also gone untouched.

As Boutwell’s suspicion of Michael deepened, he chose to ignore the physical evidence that pointed to an outside intruder: Fingerprints on a dining room door frame— and elsewhere—that matched no one who lived in the house. A fresh footprint in the fenced-in backyard. And a bandanna, found by Christine’s brother the day after her death, when he searched a construction site behind the Mortons’ home. (Why weren’t the cops the ones searching? Because they’d already zeroed in on Morton.) The bandanna was stained with blood. When the brother handed it over to the police, they failed to test it or to further search the area. They also disregarded a neighbor’s sighting of a man in a green van on the street on the morning of the murder—and, Morton learned much, much later, his young son’s statement to Christine’s mother that he’d seen a “monster” hit Mommy and “break the bed,” when his father wasn’t there.

Two and a half decades later, after the advent of DNA testing and an agonizing, protracted battle by Michael Morton and his lawyers to submit the bandanna to a crime lab for analysis, it became clear that the blood on it came from Christine and an unknown man. Still, the district attorney’s office that had prosecuted Morton refused to admit he’d been wrongly convicted. And then Morton’s lawyers (who include my friend Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project) succeeded in finding a match for the mystery DNA in the FBI’s database. And then it turned out that the man with the matching profile—Mark Alan Norwood—had lived around the corner from a woman who looked like Christine and who’d been bludgeoned to death in her bed in an unsolved murder. Finally, Michael Morton was released from prison and Norwood went on trial for the two murders for which he’d escaped punishment for so many years. (Ken Anderson, one of the prosecutors in the case, now a Texas judge, is about to go before a state court of inquiry for his alleged misconduct. It’s a rare show of accountability, as Joe Nocera points out in the New York Times.)

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