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Michael Morton Act Heads for Gov. Perry's Desk

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT

Update: The Texas House gave final passage to the bill on May 14, 2013, officially sending it to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

Original version:
The Texas House has voted to pass bills that would grant more rights to people when they’re suspected and even convicted of crimes. The votes took place on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brady vs. Maryland ruling, which established a suspect’s right to access evidence against him or her. 

Michael Morton spent about 25 years behind bars, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. 

His defense lawyers have said they could not access any of the evidence during the trial. He was later exonerated in 2011 because of DNA testing.

On Monday, House members voted on two bills influenced by his case: Senate Bills 825 and 1611. The former, authored by State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, involves filing a grievance. The latter, by State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, requires an open-file of evidence. Morton says these would avoid another case like his.        

"[SB] 1611 in particular because the open-file system would have prevented what happened to me from happening," Morton said. "Had it been in force when I was tried and arrested, I wouldn’t have gone to prison, I wouldn’t have been convicted because it requires the open-file with the prosecutor’s office."

The statute of limitations to file a grievance against a prosecutor begins from the moment the violation is discovered. Someone in prison, however, can’t attend a hearing. SB 825 would allow the exonerated to file a grievance up to four years upon release from prison. It also requires the state bar committee to publicly take action publicly against the prosecutor, such as taking away the person’s license or writing a letter of reprimand.

House members passed both bills preliminarily, but upon final passage, expected today, they will head for Gov. Perry’s desk.

"This is a huge first step. Open file is common in most counties but having it legislatively required is a huge first step," Morton said. "I’m very encouraged and happy about it."  

Vikrant Reddy, an analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, says moving forward, this legislation would help indigent defendants the most. They can’t afford to pay multiple attempts by an attorney to access evidence, he says.

"I do know for a fact there are many, many Texans who have to have a counsel appointed for them and generally speaking, that part of our system is a lot more difficult to succeed at trial, than it would be if you could select your own counsel," Reddy said.

He, like Morton, says these bills are among the most significant bills to pass through the Legislature. While Morton wouldn’t comment on what more needs to be done, Reddy says he hopes there won’t be legislative fixes to the Texas criminal justice system session after session.