The Austin American-Statesman has published the editorial, "Texas Senate’s attempts to limit wrongful convictions commendable."
Its passage wasn’t as sure as it should have been, given that it was as much a no-brainer as any piece of legislation could be, but this week the Senate finally and unanimously passed the Michael Morton Act.
Morton was on hand for the occasion Thursday. He stood, as the American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reported, in a Capitol corridor while holding the gavel Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had used minutes earlier to announce approval of the legislation named in his honor. The vote, coming 18 months after Morton’s release from prison, was 31-0.
It’s hard to imagine opposition to a bill designed to prevent wrongful convictions by requiring prosecutors to share crucial information with defense attorneys, but the Michael Morton Act appeared doomed Wednesday until a delicate compromise, prodded along by Dewhurst, appeased concerns by district attorneys that the bill threatened the safety of witnesses and victims in some cases. So lawmakers added a few restrictions to shield some identities.
Point taken on protecting the potentially vulnerable. Now the House should follow the Senate’s lead and pass the Michael Morton Act.
Let's begin news coverage of the vote with the Statesman report, "Senate passes Michael Morton Act," by Chuck Lindell.
Wednesday’s intense negotiations — including not-so-gentle prodding by Dewhurst, who gathered all the parties into a room in the afternoon and told them not to emerge without an agreement — produced a breakthrough on victim and witness information that saved the legislation.
“It feels very, very good of course, but I know we’re not through. We have the other side to go through, the House,” Morton said.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a highly respected 20-term Democrat from Houston, will shepherd the bill through the House.
Morton will be there, too, hoping that the agreement forged by prosecutors, defense lawyers and a half-dozen senators will find relatively easy acceptance.
The Texas Tribune posted, "Senate Unanimously Approves Michael Morton Act," by Brandi Grissom.
A year and a half after he took off his prison whites for the last time, exoneree Michael Morton stood in the Senate beside his wife, Cynthia, on Thursday as lawmakers in that chamber unanimously approved a bill named in his honor that aims to prevent others from being wrongfully convicted.
"Had this been in place when I was arrested, I probably wouldn't have gone to prison," Morton said shortly before senators passed Senate Bill 1611, by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. It would require prosecutors to turn over evidence to defense lawyers in criminal cases.
"Michael's tragic case brought to the forefront something we already knew in Texas," Ellis said. "Our criminal discovery process in Texas needs serious reform."
Today — as in 1987 when Morton was tried — prosecutors aren't required by state law to provide evidence to defense lawyers unless ordered to by the court. Though many Texas prosecutors have some form of open file policy, those procedures vary from county to county and sometimes even within a district attorney's office. In a February report based on a survey of more than 40 prosecutors' offices, Texas Appleseed and Texas Defender Service, both justice advocacy organizations, found that "lack of uniformity in discovery policies in Texas makes access to justice dependent, in part, on where a defendant is charged."
Since his release from prison, Morton has been on a mission to see the implementation of laws that help prevent wrongful convictions like his and that hold prosecutors accountable when their decisions result in innocent people losing years of liberty. The Senate has already approved SB 825, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which would extend the statute of limitations for offenses involving evidence suppression by district attorneys. Under current law, the four-year statute of limitations begins ticking on such offenses when they occur. Whitmire's proposal would begin the clock on the statute of limitations at the time a wrongfully convicted defendant is released from prison. That measure is awaiting a hearing Monday in the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
"Senate OKs bill to share DA case files with defense," was the AP filing written by Will Weissert, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The Senate unanimously approved the Michael Morton Act, named in honor of a Texan who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and designed to prevent future wrongful convictions.
After their vote Thursday, senators stood and applauded and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst banged a specially engraved wooden gavel that was later awarded to a beaming Morton, who watched the proceedings from just off the floor -- a long way from the prison cell he was sitting in two years ago.
The measure now heads to the House for consideration.
Dallas Morning News editorial board member Rodger Jones posted, "Michael Morton Act passes Senate unanimously," on the Views blog.
Ellis, a Houston Democrat, co-author with Sen. Robert Duncan, Republican of Lubbock, credited Morton for using his “life’s tragedy” to lobby strongly for the bill, SB 1611.
The legislation updates, broadens and clarifies the access defense attorneys have to case files compiled by prosecutors. Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, but has maintained in court that the DA kept vital information from him. Morton was freed after DNA tests cleared him in 2011, despite years of efforts by the DA’s office to keep evidence away from him for testing.
Ellis told the Senate that he thought months of work on the bill was lost a few times, especially in the last week, after Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, began lobbying for changes after the bill already emerged from committee. One key to breaking the impasse, I’m told, was Dallas Sen. Royce West, a former prosecutor, who got involved in a come-to-Jesus meeting among negotiators on Monday.
"Ken Anderson court of inquiry resumes April 19," is from the American-Statesman.
A moment of truth for district court judge Ken Anderson is expected to arrive April 19, when the court of inquiry investigating his alleged wrongdoing reconvenes.
At 1 p.m. at the county’s Justice Center in Georgetown, Judge Louis Sturns is to hear closing arguments from attorneys, as he considers whether Anderson – in his prior role as district attorney – withheld evidence during Michael Morton’s 1987 murder trial. The judge has three issues to consider: whether Anderson tampered with physical evidence, if he tampered with a government record and/or he committed contempt of court.
If Sturns rules Anderson did any of these, it’s possible Anderson could face misdemeanor or felony criminal charges, but Sturns would also have to rule statutes of limitations have not passed.
The court of inquiry – which was first in session Feb. 4-8 – is not an actual trial.
“This is like a public grand jury proceeding and the judge is like the sole person on the grand jury,” one lawyer familiar with the case said this week. “He [Sturns] can say, ‘This should go forward [for prosecution].’ The standard for that is, ‘Is there probable cause?’”
Throughout five days of February testimony, special prosecutor Rusty Hardin produced witnesses who testified as to what they did and did not know before and during Morton’s February 1987 trial.
Earlier coverage of the Texas criminal discovery legislation begins at the link; also available, more information from this Texas legislative session, coverage of Michael Morton's exoneration, and the Anderson Court of Inquiry.