AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The House on Monday approved the Michael Morton Act, a measure designed to prevent wrongful convictions and named in honor of a Texan who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
It would create a uniform "open file" policy in Texas, compelling prosecutors to share case files with defense attorneys that can help defendants' cases.
Morton, 58, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1986 slaying of his wife Christine, but freed in October 2011, after DNA testing was done on a bloody bandanna originally found near the couple's Austin home. Investigators said the DNA evidence led them to another man, Mark Alan Norwood, whose DNA was in a national database as a result of his long criminal history.
Norwood was convicted in March and sentenced to life in prison for killing Christine Morton. He also has been indicted in a 1988 slaying of another woman who lived near the Mortons.
The district attorney at Morton's trial, Ken Anderson, now a state district judge in Georgetown, is accused of deliberately withholding evidence from the defense that indicated Morton's innocence.
On April 19, a court of inquiry — a special proceeding to determine wrongdoing by court officials — determined that Anderson acted improperly during Morton's trial. He is now facing criminal contempt and tampering with evidence charges.
The version of the bill passed in the lower chamber is unchanged from the one the state Senate passed unanimously last month. It must clear a final, procedural House vote before it heads to Gov. Rick Perry to be signed into law.
Perry "supports efforts to open up discovery during criminal cases and, depending on any additional action taken by the House, he looks forward to receiving this bill on his desk," said Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor.
The Morton Act is sponsored by Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
"This is an incredible day for justice in Texas," Ellis said in a statement. "We must weigh all relevant evidence and ensure we bring all the relevant facts to light to safeguard the innocent, convict only the guilty, and provide justice."
The bill was originally held up by worries that sharing certain prosecutorial information with defense attorneys could sometimes place witnesses or victims in jeopardy. But the proposal that reached the House included language inserted by Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and former prosecutor, to remove witness or victim names from case files if they could be in danger.
Morton was watching from the gallery as the House used a voice vote to advance the act. Its sponsor in the chamber, veteran Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson, asked Morton to climb to his feet to be recognized — which sparked a standing ovation from lawmakers.
Fellow Houston Democrat Harold Dutton noted that the bill also creates criminal penalties for prosecutors who knowingly withhold evidence, leaving it up to the state Supreme Court to craft the rules and possible punishments.
Thompson said the measure wouldn't end wrongful convictions across the state but called it a "large step" to removing barriers to greater criminal justice transparency. She added of Morton's case that the bill: "seeks to try and prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future."
Senate Bill 1611: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/BillLookup/history.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB1611