The wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration of Michael Morton is fairly well-known.  He spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife and was exonerated by DNA testing.  An investigation also revealed that the prosecution had withheld evidence supporting his innocence.  The outcry has led to charges being filed against the prosecutor who tried Morton and legislative reforms aimed at preventing future wrongful convictions.

The societal and personal costs were always known but the actual dollar amount had never been revealed.  Now, the Austin American-Statesman has published an article stating that the county has spent $158,000 in costs associated with Morton’s case (but not including Morton’s 1987 trial).   The costs included the trial of the real perpetrator (Mark Norwood) and some costs for the court of inquiry for the original prosecutor.

The Statesman broke down the costs as follows:

“The Norwood trial cost $153,176.24,  [Williamson County assistant auditor Julie] Kiley said. The trial was held in San Angelo because of publicity about the case in Williamson County.

Since the state reimbursed the county $7,530.31 for witness travel and accommodation, the net cost of the trial for Williamson County was $145,879.84, Kiley said. That net cost included:

  • $109,179.02 for two court-appointed attorneys for Norwood and $16,037.50 for DNA testing, she said.
  • $1,672.82 for jury expenses, copy charges or supplies needed by the clerk or the judge.
  • $18,990.50 for the lodging and travel expenses for the county employees involved in the trial and the witness expenses not reimbursed by the state.

Kiley said the costs of the Norwood trial were paid from the county’s general fund.

“Past murder trials have cost the county about this same amount,” Kiley said. “The county budgets for contingencies each fiscal year as we know there will be unplanned expenses that will occur.”

Williamson County also paid $12,780 for the court of inquiry, which included the costs of transcripts, court reporting and the expenses of Judge Louis Sturns and visiting Judge Sid Harle, Kiley said.

The county has not yet received the bill for the legal work, travel and expenses of Rusty Hardin, an attorney who presented evidence in the court of inquiry, Kiley said.

Sturns has agreed to accept indigent rates for his work. The indigent rate for a court-appointed attorney rate for a bench trial is $1,000 a day, Kiley said.”

Compared to the budgets of major cities, $158,000 may not seem a lot.  But for any cash-strapped county, any extra money spent means money not well spent.  Simply put, wrongful convictions end up costing the taxpayers money and not just from any compensation award or civil suit settlement by the county.  You must include the trial of the real perpetrator, any investigations into the wrongful conviction, and the court costs of the evidentiary hearings.

Compare these costs to the costs of implementing reforms such as recording interrogations or preventing the backlog of testing rape kits.  The cost of being wrong is much, much higher than the cost of prevention.