A bill to improve the discovery of information in criminal cases in Texas finally wound its way to a halt yesterday – on the Governor’s desk. The passage of the Michael Morton Act by the House and its signing into law by Governor Perry is appropriately historic this week, marking the 50th anniversary of the Brady v. Maryland decision as well as the first major reform to Texas’s discovery rules since 1965.
The Michael Morton Act provides that prosecutors must disclose exculpatory or impeachment evidence to defendants in a timely manner, providing a timeline and accounting process to make sure the law is followed. It will also ensure that defendants have all police reports and witness statements (though it contains provisions to protect sensitive witness information).
SB 1611, introduced by State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, was named after Michael Morton who’s wrongful conviction may have been prevented had this new law been in place when he was found guilty of the murder of his wife, Christine.
An editorial by the Austin American-Statesman describes the significance of the bill’s passage: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… Texas has recorded 125 wrongful convictions since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. As though we needed another example of prosecutors forgetting that justice is not synonymous with winning a guilty verdict, two weeks ago the state officially dismissed its murder case against Randolph Arledge, who had been convicted in 1984 of killing Carol Armstrong near Corsicana… Wrongful convictions undermine criminal justice. This session, legislators have taken significant and positive steps to try to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the future and ensure that verdicts will be delivered against the guilty while the innocent walk free.
The Dallas Morning News reports that Michael Morton, who personally lobbied for the passage of SB 1611, was present at the bill signing and didn’t speak to the press,” just smiled while Perry put ink to paper and kissed the pen after Perry was finished.”
Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director for Texas Defender Service which helped garner support for the bill, reflected, “This week marks the 50th anniversary of Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandated the sharing of evidence which is favorable to the defense in criminal cases. It is fitting that this is the week Texas is improving our laws governing the sharing of evidence so that they are fairer, clearer and more consistent.”
Also passed by the House and sent to the Governor’s desk this week is a bill that extends the statute of limitations for exonerated people to pursue allegations that prosecutors failed to disclose Brady material in their cases. The statue of limitations currently gives defendants four years from the date of the violation to pursue such claims; the new law will provide them with four years from the date of exoneration.