Texas Takes Big Step to Reduce Wrongful Convictions

Yesterday, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, also called the “Michael Morton Act,” into law, requiring prosecutors to give defense lawyers any evidence that is relevant to their client’s case to avoid information being hidden at trial that could lead to a wrongful conviction.

Michael Morton, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine, spent nearly 25 years behind bars before he was exonerated in 2011. DNA testing finally revealed the real perpetrator. Morton’s lawyers discovered that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the original trial, had intentionally hidden evidence that could have helped Morton’s defense. Morton believes that if this bill had been in place before his trial then he would not have been wrongfully convicted. Since his exoneration, he has been lobbying for legislation that would help prevent this from happening to others.

“This is a huge victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” said Perry, who gave the pen he used to sign the bill to a smiling Morton. Perry noted that it was fitting that he was signing this bill almost 50 years to the day since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brady v. Maryland, which requires that prosecutors give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The new Texas bill requires that the prosecution hand over all evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. The Morton Act is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.

Tennessee isn’t immune from the issue addressed by the Morton Act. In fact, many members of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty urged Tennessee to consider just such a policy. The Morton Act allows for both the prosecution and defense to access the facts in order to put on their best cases and would only make the system fairer. Perhaps Tennessee, a state that since 2000 has executed six and released four wrongfully convicted men from death row, would do well to follow Texas’ lead.

(Photo of Gov. Perry shaking hands with Michael Morton after signing SB 1611. By Marjorie Kamys Cotera of The Texas Tribune)

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