The newsroom in Georgetown, Texas, was grim, lonely and sparsely populated on Friday nights in October 2011.
But reporter Andrew McLemore, kept company by the occasional beer and his editor at the Williamson County Sun, Ben Trollinger, worked until the early hours of Saturday mornings editing and revising, determined to answer the overriding question for Williamson County: How could such a serious miscarriage of justice have occurred?
How could an innocent man spend 25 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife?
"The idea of getting to work on a story like this was thrilling from the get-go," says the 25-year-old McLemore of the chance to cover the story of Christine Morton's murder, a crime that left her husband Michael Morton languishing in jail for a quarter of a century.
The Williamson County Sun is a 10,000-circulation, biweekly newspaper in a county north of Austin often referred to as Wilco. McLemore had been a reporter at the paper for about a year when he began working on this story. He says having the chance to report on the case "was as great of an opportunity as I could have possibly asked for."
His 17,000-word-plus, three-part series that ran in October 2011, "Until Proven Innocent," won this year's Livingston Award for local reporting. Livingston Awards are given to journalists under 35. McLemore left the Sun earlier this year and has been reporting for the Fort Worth Weekly since March.
A bit of background: Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife. The murder was sexual in nature and brutally horrific. Although the crime was discovered much earlier in the day on August 13, 1986, Morton did not find out something was wrong until he went to pick up the couple's three-year-old son from daycare that afternoon. When he found out his son had never been dropped off, Michael immediately called home – a call that was answered by then-Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell.
Six weeks after his wife's death, Morton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After his conviction, which took jurors less than two hours to decide, Morton waged a 25-year campaign to establish his innocence. DNA evidence is what ultimately exonerated Morton in 2011 and linked another man, Mark Alan Norwood, to the murder.
The Livingston Award announcement says McLemore's reporting "showed the guilty verdict was accomplished when evidence gathered by the lead investigator was withheld by the prosecuting attorney's office."
Morton's defense team says then-District Attorney Ken Anderson and his fellow prosecutors did not make available any exculpatory evidence – evidence favorable to the defendant.
McLemore wrote in the series, "Prosecutors are required by law to hand over any exculpatory evidence to the defense, regardless of whether or not they believe in its veracity. If the additional evidence wasn't in that file, that means [Judge William] Lott never had the chance to rule on it, defense attorneys never had the chance to review it and jurors never had the chance to consider it."
Although not the DA at the time of the trial, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley lost reelection in MayŻ largely, many think, because of his stance against the DNA testing of a crucial piece of evidence, a bloody blue bandanna found about 300 feet from the Morton's home.
McLemore says he began covering the case for the Sun in August 2011, when "bombshell" DNA test results in the case were revealed: The DNA on the bloody blue bandanna did not match Morton's, and instead connected Norwood to the crime. McLemore says Bradley fought against releasing Morton immediately, arguing it was still possible that he had killed his wife.
When Norwood's DNA was linked to another case – the murder of a woman named Debra Baker – in September 2011, Morton was released from prison on bond.
McLemore says he soon began researching the case in depth, curious as to how things had gone so terribly wrong in Williamson County's criminal justice system, which he calls "the flagship institution" there. Morton was exonerated on October 4, 2011, about three weeks after McLemore had started his reporting on the case in earnest.
McLemore says, "To have this story about a Williamson County man who spent a quarter of a century in prison wrongfully really shook the foundations of the old-school identity of Williamson County."
Trollinger adds, "Everyone was covering the case, [but] we were in a unique position to go deeper than anybody else." He says the paper carved out about a month for McLemore to work exclusively on the Morton case – which means he did not cover his normal beat. And with a staff of just three reporters, an associate editor, an editor and a page designer, Trollinger says the rest of the team had to pick up the slack.
"I was very confident that Andrew would turn in something that would make it worth everyone's sacrifice – and he did. We were really happy with it."
At first, McLemore was not confident he could tell the story in the powerful fashion it deserved. But he says when he finally sat down to write, he realized his own insignificance in the process, adding he was "just hoping to contribute something meaningful."
McLemore says he is grateful for the opportunity to work with an editor willing to commit to a story like this – and grateful that he worked for a small paper. He adds, "You learn the meaning of accountability at a small newspaper."
He called all the names in the phone book matching those of the jurors, he sifted through hand-scribbled county records and he tracked down letters Morton had written to the judge in the custody case surrounding his son – things he says were not always easy to get his hands on.
But he says it was working in the intimate setting of a small town that enabled him to ultimately get what he was looking for. "A lot of the stuff that I did end up getting a hold of happened because I had the time, and I asked for it enough times... The people there really care about their newspaper," he says.
"This is a great example of how to get the best information for these big stories. You have to be a beat reporter. You have to be in the community of people that you are reporting on."
And working for the 10,000-circulation Sun was hardly an impediment.
"Young journalists should never easily dismiss the value of working at a small paper," he says. "If you go into it believing that the size of the paper [means] you can't do great journalism, you're wrong."
McLemore's competition for the Livingston Award included print, broadcast and digital journalists, who all are lumped together. Winners in the local, national and international categories receive $10,000.
"Being recognized by the people who judge the Livingston is as much or more of an honor than I maybe ever expected to get – much less after being a full-time journalist for less than two years," McLemore says.
"There are no words. It's one of the most incredible things that could have happened to me at this point."
McLemore and Trollinger say the response from the community to both the series and the award has been overwhelming. "I got Thanksgiving and Christmas cards from people in the community thanking me for writing the story," McLemore says.
"Our readers are pretty committed and they pay attention. Everybody likes to see their paper do well," Trollinger says. Although the Livingston is a great honor, he says winning an award was not part of the paper's game plan. In fact, he sees a tendency for news organizations to launch major investigative projects to win awards, which he says is a big problem.
Trollinger says editors should not shy away from embracing long-form reporting, but not for the sake of impressing other journalists. "These things sort of emerge organically, and it becomes obvious that you have to do it," he says.
McLemore is originally from the Rio Grande Valley city of Edinburg, Texas. He graduated in May 2010 from the University of North Texas, where he was editor of the student newspaper, the North Texas Daily. He is also a photographer and enjoys playing the saxophone and keyboards; he's currently writing music for a spoken word album with his girlfriend, who is a poet.
While McLemore is proud of his work on the Morton saga, he knows his early success is no guarantee that he'll always flourish in the fast-evolving world of journalism.
"This is still one of the most trying times to be a journalist," he says. "As honored as I am..I know I don't have a golden ticket to get to do journalism for the rest of my life."
*Paragraph 2 has been changed to reflect McLemore's clarification that only he drank the occasional beer.
*Paragraph 17 was modified to add more detail about how McLemore pursued the story.