"Morton Act a victory for justice," is the Austin American-Statesman editorial. It's a must-read on the state of major criminal justice reforms in the Texas Legislature.
All that remains to be done to make the Michael Morton Act state law is for Gov. Rick Perry to do the expected and sign it. This necessary legislation, which once appeared doomed in the Texas Senate before winning unanimous approval there and, on Tuesday, in the Texas House, brings statewide consistency to criminal cases by requiring prosecutors to share information with defense lawyers.
When the governor puts his signature on this important act, a statewide “open file” policy will be created. Such a policy should help prevent the kind of wrongful conviction that sent Morton to prison for almost 25 years for the murder of his wife, Christine.
The Michael Morton Act, which was co-authored by Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Republican state Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, almost didn’t make it out of the Senate. District attorneys had expressed concern that the bill put at risk the safety of witnesses and victims, prompting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to push a reasonable compromise that allows prosecutors to delete identifying information from their files before turning them over to defense lawyers.
A related bill giving exonerated Texans four years from the date of their release from prison to pursue allegations that a prosecutor hid evidence also has been sent to the governor for him to sign. Under current law, the four-year statute of limitations begins at the time a violation occurs, a preposterous provision that makes it all but impossible to hold prosecutors accountable.
Today's Dallas Morning News publishes the editorial, "Legislative progress report."
Haven’t we done enough?
The implied question hung like a stink bomb over what should have been a satisfying day of landmark reform of criminal justice in Texas.
Just a few hours earlier on Tuesday, the Texas House gave final legislative OK to breakthrough legislation, the Michael Morton Act, to clarify and broaden a defendant’s access to evidence that could prove innocence. Passage of the bill, SB 1611, comes the week of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brady vs. Maryland, which established access to exculpatory evidence as a constitutional right.
It was inspiring to see the Texas House rally to that founding principle and pass SB 1611 unanimously, 146-0, and send it to the governor.
Then came the sour note from Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, as she chaired a Senate hearing on HB 166 to study cases of proven exoneration, like Morton’s. The goal is to apply lessons learned after analyzing cases of government overreach that robbed people of their freedom.
But Huffman lectured the committee — and a group of exonerees waiting to testify — that the state of Texas has done just fine by victims of wrongful conviction and has compiled an impressive list of reforms in recent years. Her recitation was as boneheaded as it was insulting to people who had lost decades of their lives because of slipshod work, backward practices or ethical lapses by cops and prosecutors.
Learning from breakdowns in justice should be an ongoing process. The state has adopted some new safeguards, but there is little track record.
I'll have more of the Huffman episode in the next post.
"Texas Senate must move quickly to pass exoneration bill," is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial.
There is a stain on the Texas criminal justice system that no spot remover can erase.
But Texas’ indelible shame of having sent too many innocent people to prison should not keep lawmakers, law enforcement officials, judges and prosecutors from working to improve the procedures whose flaws have led to serious mistakes.
With 117 exonerations, Texas leads the nation in erroneous convictions. Since 1994, there have been 49 exonerations based on DNA testing; 41 of those occurred in the last 12 years.
To its credit, the Legislature in the last few sessions has passed legislation aimed at reducing the chances of convicting innocent people, including strengthening the reliability of eyewitness identification such as through photo lineups.
This week, the state House passed the Michael Morton Act on a vote of 146-0. Named for a man who was wrongly convicted of murder in Williamson County after a district attorney withheld important evidence, the bill requires prosecutors to have an “open file” policy of sharing information with defense attorneys.
The Morton case and many others in which the system failed make it extremely important that another pending bill is not allowed to die in the Senate.
HB166, which passed the House with strong bipartisan support, would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, a nine-member body that would examine all Texas cases in which a conviction was erased through exoneration.
The panel is named for a Fort Worth man who died in prison before his innocence was proven. Timothy Cole became the first person in the state to be exonerated posthumously.
The commission’s role would be to “identify errors and defects” in the criminal justice process and point out “ethical violations or misconduct by attorneys or judges.”
Earlier coverage of the Michael Morton Act begins at the link.