A tentative deal struck Wednesday among legislators and prosecutors on a bill that would require state lawyers to give evidence to the accused in criminal cases means that the Michael Morton Act will be on the Senate floor for a vote Thursday.
"It looks as if we have a deal," Michael Morton said following an afternoon of negotiations with senators and lawyers.
The bill that would require prosecutors to share evidence with defendants was inspired by Morton's 25-year ordeal with the criminal justice system. Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison. Morton was released in 2011 after DNA testing connected another man to the crime. Morton's lawyers argue that the prosecutor in his case, Ken Anderson, who is now a Williamson County state district judge, withheld critical evidence that could have prevented the wrongful conviction.
Anderson now faces both criminal and civil action for his role in the case. The judge, though, contends he did nothing wrong during the Morton prosecution.
Currently, prosecutors aren't required under state law to provide evidence to defense lawyers unless ordered to by the court, though many Texas prosecutors have some form of open file policy. Since his release from prison, Morton has been on a mission to see the implementation of laws that hold prosecutors accountable when their decisions result in wrongful convictions.
Under Senate Bill 1611, by state Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, prosecutors would be required to turn over evidence to lawyers who represent the accused. In recent days, some prosecutors, along with state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former assistant district attorney and criminal court judge, expressed concern over potential risks to the security of victims in criminal cases. They wanted defense lawyers to seek court approval before sharing information about their cases with those not directly involved.
The disagreement threatened to stymie the bill, but Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist who is working pro bono on Morton's behalf, said a deal was struck Wednesday afternoon.
"It’s a very balanced approach," Ratliff said, adding that the measure would both ensure that defendants have access to information they need to have a fair trial and safeguard victims from potential harm.
Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors were satisfied that the bill would offer enough protections for witnesses and victims. He said prosecutors recognized it was important to provide evidence to defense lawyers despite the defense lawyers' resistance to provide reciprocal information. Earlier versions of the discovery bill required both sides to share evidence, a proposal many defense lawyers balked at and that in the past had thwarted reform efforts.
"They really felt like it was important that, as a profession, we move forward and show people that there needs to be consistency and the defense needs access to this information," Kepple said of prosecutors.
Kepple said he was confident that this year the measure would pass in both chambers of the Legislature.
Ellis said that he didn't want to "jinx" the bill, which has seen a number of agreements come and go during the last three months. But at the end of meetings Wednesday — which were hosted by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and included Morton, Ratliff, the state prosecutors association, Huffman, Duncan and Sens. John Whitmire and Royce West — Ellis said he was hopeful the bill would be approved Thursday in the Senate.