Fallout from the high-profile Michael Morton exoneration along with more prison closures and growing concerns about the mentally ill in Texas prisons dominated criminal justice headlines in 2013.
Morton was released from prison in 2011 after DNA tests revealed that he did not murder his wife in 1986, a crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After spending nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Morton lobbied the Legislature this year to pass laws that would prevent others from experiencing the same tragedy. And both the prosecutor who oversaw Morton’s conviction and the man whose DNA was connected to Morton’s wife’s murder wound up behind bars.
As the prison population and the number of juveniles in youth lockups continued to fall in the wake of criminal justice reforms in recent years, lawmakers decided to shutter more facilities. Legislators approved the closure of two privately operated state jails and one juvenile detention center. While some cheered the move, others in the communities where the facilities are located worried the closures would devastate the local economies.
On the death penalty front, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in its search for hard-to-find lethal injection drugs, dusted up controversy with its decision to purchase a new compound drug from a pharmacist in The Woodlands. Lawmakers also approved a new law requiring DNA testing in all death penalty cases. Death row inmate Robert Avila — convicted of stomping a baby to death — became the first to seek relief from his conviction under a law approved this year that allows courts to grant new trials in cases where forensic science has evolved since the initial trial.
Mental health concerns were a priority among lawmakers this year. The case of Andre Thomas, a severely mentally ill death row inmate, sparked serious questions about use of the death penalty and mental illness. Continued complaints from local law enforcement about jails crowded with mentally ill inmates and national controversy over mass shootings by those with mental health problems drove lawmakers to put millions of additional dollars into community-based mental health care.
Also this year, Megan Winfrey was acquitted of a murder conviction that was based largely on dog-scent evidence. She was reunited with her father and brother, who were acquitted of the same crime. But as she would find out, returning to free life after prison is no easy task, especially when the courts do not declare a person actually innocent of the crime.
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