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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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December 5th, 2013
06:22 PM ET

DNA evidence frees innocent man who spent 25 years in prison

Editor's note: For much more about the dramatic exoneration of falsely accused murderer Michael Morton, watch CNN Films' "An Unreal Dream, The Michael Morton Story," airing Thursday, December 12, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN TV.

(CNN) – Crucial DNA evidence proved Michael Morton had been sitting in jail for a quarter century, for a crime he didn't commit. Morton was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife, Christine, even though he repeatedly denied it.

"I didn't think I'd be convicted. I thought it was going to be a longish trial. But then it would be revealed that there can be no there there," Morton said in the documentary "An Unreal Dream," airing Thursday on CNN.

But he was wrong. Morton was sentenced to life and spent 25 years in prison before his attorneys and The Innocence Project, a group which works to help prove prisoners innocent through DNA evidence, found holes in his conviction.

DNA testing in 1987, when Morton was convicted, was "very rudimentary," said Chris Asplen, a former federal prosecutor who is now the director for the Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing.

"Very few places were actually doing DNA testing at all. Admissibility wars were still being fought throughout the country to try to get it legal in the courts," said Asplen. "We are now light years ahead of that."

Back then, DNA testing was about being reliable, and the technology was designed to try to do more with less, to get a good profile from smaller pieces of evidence.

"Now that we can get DNA profiles from evidence we can't even see, now the issue is how do we do it more quickly," said Asplen. "Now it's reliability and speed, because when you're doing DNA testing, how quickly you get to do that testing may literally save someone's life."

In Morton's case, The Innocence Project was able to find that there was a blood-stained bandanna that police at the time had recovered near the crime scene that had never been DNA tested. It proved that another man had killed Morton's wife, a convicted felon named Mark Norwood. Morton was freed in 2011, and Norwood was convicted of Christine's murder earlier this year. Police believe Norwood killed another woman, Debra Baker, in 1988.

The fact there was evidence, that was never tested for DNA is "a tragedy," says Asplen.

"It's a tragedy not only for what happened to Michael's life," says Asplen. "It was also a tragedy for what happened to Deborah Baker and the fact that she was killed when, if we had identified the right perpetrator early on rather than have this tunnel vision for Michael Morton, we very well may have prevented her murder also."

For more of our interview with Chris Asplen, watch the video above.

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