March 11 is a milestone for three lawyers who contributed money and fundraising assistance to help fund a documentary about Michael Morton, who served nearly 25 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife.
"An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story" premieres that day during the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, with additional showings on March 13 and 16.
When the credits roll, the list of executive producers will include retired in-house counsel Stephen Martin, commercial litigator Beverly Reeves and criminal-defense attorney Kent Schaffer. They say they think it’s important for the public to know Morton’s story and they hope the film gets wide distribution.
"We want every law student in America to see this movie. We want every prosecutor in America to see this movie," says Reeves, partner in Reeves & Brightwell in Austin.
Reeves recalls that one of her friends contacted her after learning that the film’s director, Al Reinert, needed to raise funding for the documentary. Reeves spoke to Reinert and helped connect him with a documentary filmmaker, Marcy Garriott, who became one of the producers.
Reeves says she worked with the Austin Film Society to set up a nonprofit account so donations would be tax deductible. She reached out to other lawyers for $100 donations when filmmakers needed $10,000 for archival footage.
"Boom, within a day or so, we had the money," says Reeves.
Reeves says it was "breathtaking" to watch filmmakers interview Morton and others last year over Memorial Day weekend. She heard firsthand about Morton’s trauma over his wife’s murder, the shock of being accused of the crime and then sentenced to life in prison, and the heartbreak of losing his son, who eventually stopped visiting him in prison and changed his last name.
Filmmakers interviewed Morton in the same Williamson County courtroom where he was convicted in 1987; it was the first time Morton had returned to that room.
"It was so personal and so real," says Reeves. She says she became close friends with Morton, his mother and his fiancé.
Schaffer, a criminal-defense lawyer of 32 years, says he also raised funds from other lawyers.
Unless people are aware of Morton’s story, similar things could happen "over and over," says Schaffer, partner in Bires Schaffer & DeBorde in Houston.
"What was done to Michael Morton was just an absolute travesty of justice," he says.
Schaffer says Reinert asked him to become an executive producer because, for more than a year, Schaffer has invested in feature films by Los Angeles filmmakers.
Martin says one of his friends, an Austin lawyer, is also friends with Reinert, and he told Martin about the documentary. Martin decided he wanted to invest in the film.
Martin, previously the vice president and general counsel of Anadarko Petroleum Corp., says compared to what Morton went through, it’s easy to write a check. Martin says he tried to see himself in Morton’s situation.
"This is a story that reaches out and grabs you. It could happen to me. It could happen to you. It could happen to anybody," he says.