The Michael Morton Act Ensures an Even Playing Field Between Prosecution and Defense
In 1986, Christine Morton was found brutally beaten and murdered in her home near Austin. The following year, her husband, Michael Morton, was convicted and received a life sentence for the crime. Morton spent 25 years in prison until a 2011 DNA test implicated another man, Mark Allan Norwood. Morton was formally cleared later that year.
There are many stories of defendants being exonerated with DNA evidence. But Morton’s case was particularly noteworthy because of the actions (or inactions) of the prosecuting attorney, Ken Anderson. While Morton’s attorneys sought an appeal for the DNA test in 2011, they discovered evidence that was in Anderson’s possession during the trial in 1987 which indicated that somebody other than Morton murdered Christine. This “exculpatory evidence” included a statement taken from Morton’s three year old son who identified the murderer as a “monster” with a mustache (not his father). Another document was a police interview of Morton’s neighbors who identified a suspicious vehicle and passenger parked across the street during the days leading up to Christine Morton’s death (again, not Morton).
Morton’s attorneys argued that there was probable cause to believe that Anderson had willingly and knowingly withheld the exculpatory evidence. In 2013, a Court of Inquiry was convened to determine whether Anderson could be held in contempt of court for his failure to provide the exculpatory evidence to Morton’s attorneys. The Court found that there was enough evidence of wrongdoing on Anderson’s part. He was ultimately forced to resign his position as a state district judge, sentenced to 10 days in jail, and had his law license revoked.
The Morton case exposed an extremely egregious example of how easily justice can be derailed when winning is prioritized above everything else. But it also pointed out a flaw in the requirements placed on prosecuting attorneys regarding what details they were legally obligated to make available to Morton’s attorneys. When it comes to criminal trials, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prosecutors are required by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to disclose any evidence that is “material” to the defendant’s guilt or innocence or when it affects punishment (i.e. sentencing).This kind of evidence is often called “exculpatory” or “Brady” evidence, named for the Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland. 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
In hindsight, it is not difficult to see that the statements of Morton’s son and neighbor should have been classified as Brady/exculpatory evidence. But Ken Anderson’s attorney maintained throughout the controversy that the evidence would not have made any difference in the outcome of Morton’s trial. The Court of Inquiry thought differently and found that Anderson deliberately withheld the evidence to gain an unfair advantage.
Effects of the Morton Case
Last year, the State legislature unanimously passed the Michael Morton Act (SB 1611) as a safeguard against any potential measures by prosecutors to deprive defendants of evidence that may be favorable to their case. The law officially went into effect on January 1 and will apply to all future prosecutions.
The key points of the law include:
- Establishing an open discovery process for materials (e.g. offense reports, recorded statements of witnesses, police reports, but excluding work product) that are material to any matter involved in the case that are in the possession or control of the State or anyone under contract with the State. SB 1611 Sec. 2(a).
- Reiterates that the State is required to disclose any exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating document, item or information that is in their custody that “tends to negate the guilt of the defendant or would reduce the punishment for the offense charged.” Sec. 2(h).
- If the State discovers additional documents before, during, or after the trial, they must disclose it under the same conditions as section 2(h) and must promptly disclose the information to the defendant or the court. Sec. 2(k).
No prosecution treads lightly when it comes to convicting an accused criminal of a crime. As shown in this case, the need to put someone behind bars can lead to some prosecutors hiding information in order to prove their point instead of letting a case rest stagnant. While legislation helps to prevent instances like this from ever happening again, the best offense is a solid defense.
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