From the Tea Party, a Softer Line in Criminal Justice Discussions

Michael Morton’s ubiquitous presence and lobbying spurred lawmakers to tackle criminal justice reforms. But the increased presence of Tea Party Republicans also changed the Legislature’s attitude toward law and order.

Michael Morton got the most attention when it came to criminal justice legislation at the Capitol this year, but lawmakers passed a handful of other measures aimed at keeping innocent Texans out of prison.

Legislators approved at least seven bills that advocates argue could help prevent future wrongful convictions. Certainly, Morton’s ubiquitous presence and lobbying efforts helped spur criminal justice reforms. But both reform advocates and prosecutors agreed that the increased presence of Tea Party Republicans also changed the Legislature’s attitude toward law and order.

“The dynamic at the Capitol is definitely changing in criminal justice,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

Edmonds said that with more libertarian-leaning members of the Republican Party, the approach has become less focused on Texas’ traditional tough-on-crime ways. For instance, he said, more Republican legislators are inclined to vote with Democrats for reduced penalties for small amounts of drugs. 

“Along the political spectrum, as people go to the left end and the right end, it’s not actually a line, it’s really a circle,” Edmonds said. “And the left end and right end actually loop around and meet each other.”

Among the bills that lawmakers approved to help prevent wrongful convictions, a measure that allows DNA testing on all biological evidence in death penalty cases is drawing significant concern from prosecutors statewide, Edmonds said. They’re worried about the cost and the time it will take to comply with Senate Bill 1292, by Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

“I can’t tell you what Senator Ellis’ motivation was, but I’m sure he won’t shed any tears if the state can’t try any death penalty cases for rest of this year,” Edmonds said.

Other bills aimed at ending wrongful convictions include the Michael Morton Act, SB 1611, which requires prosecutors to turn evidence over to defense lawyers, and SB 825, which extends the statute of limitations so that prosecutors who withhold evidence can face punishment. House Bill 1847 would require more training for prosecutors on their duty to release evidence of potential innocence and evidence that could convince a jury to assign a lesser sentence.

Those bills stemmed from Morton’s story. He was convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife and spent nearly a quarter-century in prison before being exonerated after DNA testing showed another man committed the crime. The prosecutor in Morton’s case is facing civil and criminal lawsuits for allegedly withholding evidence during the trial.

Lawmakers also approved SB 1044, which gives defense lawyers free access to their clients’ criminal records, and HB 2090, which requires that statements be written in a language the accused can understand. SB 344 would require the state’s highest criminal court to grant writs based on new scientific developments.

It was a good session for criminal justice reform, said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In the wake of the Morton case, she said, prosecutors who opposed change seemed to have less sway with lawmakers. 

“You’re talking about life and liberty kind of decisions, so somebody has to hold them accountable,” she said.

But, she added, there is still plenty of work to do to ensure fairness in the Texas criminal justice system. 

“I don’t think the system is going to be fixed unless there’s equity between prosecutors and the defense,” Yáñez-Correa said. “And we’re a long way from that.”

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