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Senate Passes Prosecutor Accountability Bill

The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that attempts to bring more accountability to prosecutors who are accused of withholding evidence in cases that result in a wrongful conviction.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Michael Morton testifies in support of Senate Bill 825, which would increase prosecutorial accountability, before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 12, 2013.

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill that attempts to bring more accountability to prosecutors accused of withholding evidence in cases that result in wrongful convictions.

Senate Bill 825, authored by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is one of several measures aimed at preventing wrongful convictions in the wake of the exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s 1986 murder before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.

It would extend the statute of limitations for offenses involving the suppression of evidence by prosecutors. Under current law, the four-year statute of limitations begins on these offenses when they occur, but Whitmire's proposal would begin the four years when a wrongfully convicted defendant is released from prison. It would also require the State Bar of Texas to issue a public reprimand for prosecutors who suppress evidence that they should have given to defense attorneys.

The bill, which passed in the Senate with a 31-0 vote, now proceeds to the House, where a companion bill, House Bill 1921, has been filed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

Whitmire has said the bill was inspired by Michael Morton. The man now accused of his wife’s murder, Mark Norwood, is currently on trial in San Angelo.

Morton’s lawyers allege that Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the 1987 trial and now a state district judge in Williamson County, withheld evidence that would have been critical to Morton’s defense. Anderson has denied allegations of wrongdoing.

“We had a lot to be proud of and we still do,” he said at a court of inquiry hearing last month, where a judge heard evidence about Anderson's alleged role in the wrongful conviction. The judge is set to decide this spring whether Anderson should face criminal charges.

In a statement last month, Morton said, "As long as somebody is in prison as a result of fraudulent or illegal activity from an over-zealous prosecutor, they shouldn't have their ability to have their day in court taken from them.”

Other bills aimed at decreasing wrongful convictions being considered by lawmakers include SB 1611, by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and HB 1426, by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, both of which would codify the requirement that prosecutors share certain information with defense attorneys before a trial begins that could bolster a defendant's claims of innocence. Both bills are set to be discussed Tuesday by legislative committees.

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Courts Criminal justice