Pass Michael Morton Act to improve Texas criminal justice reliability

Posted Thursday, May. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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May 13 marks the 50th anniversary of Brady v. Maryland, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the obligation of the state to share favorable evidence with the defense in criminal cases.

When disclosure practices, called “discovery,” are poor, and evidence and information are not shared properly, terrible consequences can follow. Those include wrongful convictions; extended, expensive appeals; and other injustices.

Texas’ laws governing discovery haven’t been updated since 1965, but a new bill promises improvements if it passes the House and is signed into law.

Texas is poised to take an urgently needed step toward ensuring the fairness and effectiveness of its criminal justice system. SB1611 — known as the Michael Morton Act — passed the Texas Senate unanimously and is awaiting House consideration. The measure would reform the way information gathered by the state for a criminal prosecution is shared with the lawyer for the accused, ensuring fairer trials and reducing taxpayer costs.

As first assistant district attorney of Harris County from 2009 to 2012, I saw firsthand the benefits of broad disclosure of information from prosecution files.

When the Harris County DA’s office decided to share offense reports and witness statements in all cases in 2009, prosecutors who were in court every day noticed significant changes: They spent less time battling defense lawyers over evidentiary disclosures, and because both sides knew from the beginning what the known facts were, their cases moved through the system quicker. This saved considerable expense to Harris County taxpayers.

Requiring disclosure of offense reports and witness statements on request is one key reform in the Michael Morton Act. As significant is the requirement that prosecutors identify and give the defense information that raises doubt about guilt or that would decrease punishment.

Had these rules been in place at the time of Michael Morton’s trial, they would likely have prevented his wrongful conviction, which we now know left a killer free to kill again and ruined an innocent man’s life.

Last year, I sat in meetings with prosecutors from several offices after we learned that a Department of Public Safety crime lab analyst had been caught fabricating results. Not every DA’s office agreed that it was required to immediately advise all defense lawyers of this analyst’s malfeasance, even though that information could lead to further investigations and other exonerations.

We need the Michael Morton Act to make it clear what the duty of disclosure really means. Our system will work better when all counties follow the same rules about sharing information. SB1611 would establish, for the first time, that all counties in Texas must share information consistently and fairly, in all criminal cases. Both sides should be working with all the facts.

The most important qualities that a criminal justice system can offer are fairness and a commitment to getting it right.

Understandably, Texans’ faith in our system has been shaken by the exonerations of innocent men, including Anthony Graves, who wrongfully spent 14 years on Death Row and faced two execution dates, and of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 25 years before it was shown through DNA testing that he wasn’t connected to his wife’s slaying.

One way to restore faith — and improve the criminal justice system’s odds of getting it right — is to require all prosecution offices in the state of Texas to abide by the same open-file discovery rules.

Jim Leitner, an attorney in Houston, was Harris County’s first assistant district attorney in 2009-12.

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