Texas has passed a law which requires prosecutors to open files to defendants, and disclose all evidence relevant to the trial. The Michael Morton Act, so named after exoneree Michael Morton who was sentenced to life in 1987 and released in 2011 after the defence discovered the prosecution had withheld important evidence at trial, is a significant new law for those practicing in the field of capital defence.[1]

On 16th May, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed the bill that also ensures that prosecutors keep records of all the evidence that they disclose for future scrutiny. Michael Morton was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence revealed that someone else had murdered his wife. Morton’s lawyers discovered that the original prosecutor had withheld evidence that could have proven Morton’s innocence at trial.[2]

The landmark US Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland[3]  already requires prosecutors to hand over to defendants any evidence that is “material either to guilt or to punishment,” but Texas’ new law requires disclosure of all police reports and witness statements, regardless of whether the evidence is material to guilt or punishment.

Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said, “This is a great day for fairness in Texas. The Michael Morton Act will reduce wrongful convictions; it is something we can all be very proud of.”

Governor Perry said that it was fitting that his signing of the Michael Morton Act fell almost exactly 50 years after the Supreme Court issued the Brady ruling; “We are known as a law and order state, and as such we’ve never been easy on those convicted of a crime in our state,” Perry said. “With that tradition, however, comes a very powerful responsibility to make sure our judicial process is transparent and is as open as humanly possible.”[4]

Texas still uses the death penalty more than any other state in the US. Twelve inmates have been exonerated and freed from Texas’ death row since 1973. Texas will soon execute its five hundredth person since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. If the current Texas death row schedule holds, barring any stays or reprieves, the five hundredth execution in Texas will take place by the end of this year.[5]

Sources

  • Texas Department of Criminal Justice and The Death Penalty Information Center
  • Death Penalty Information Center
  • US Supreme Court Center
  • Texas Defender Service (TDS)
  • Texas Observer
  • The Independent
  • The Texas Tribune

[1] Three men walk free on a historic day for US justice in The Independent by Rupert Cornwell 6 October 2011

[2] Perry Signs Michael Morton Act in The Texas Observer by Olivia Messer 16 May 2013

[3] Brady v. Maryland – 373 U.S. 83 (1963)

[4] Perry Signs Michael Morton Act in The Texas Tribune by Brandi Grissom 16 May 2013

[5] State of Texas: The Road to 500 Executions in The Texas Observer by Dave Mann 17 May 2013

 

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