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Senate Bill Would Expand DNA Testing for Criminal Cases

Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for murdering his wife before DNA evidence exonerated him, said he wouldn’t have had access under current testing requirements to the evidence that set him free. A new bill by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, would expand access to DNA testing in criminal cases.

Senators John Whitmire, D-Houston, left, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, congratulate Michael Morton, right, at a court hearing in Georgetown on April 19, 2013. That day, a judge issued an arrest warrant for former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, after finding probable cause to believe Anderson withheld critical evidence in Michael Morton's 1987 murder trial.

Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, said Monday that under current DNA testing requirements, he wouldn’t have had access to the evidence that led to his release.

Morton joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project at a press conference to urge passage of a bill to expand access to DNA testing in criminal cases.

“This is about making sure the right person is convicted and making sure our communities are safe,” Ellis said.

Senate Bill 487 would allow courts to grant DNA testing for pieces of evidence that have a “reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material, like saliva or sweat, that may not be visible to the naked eye.

A February 2014 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set a precedent of only granting DNA testing on pieces of evidence if there was proof that DNA evidence existed on those items. The court denied death row inmate Larry Swearingen’s request for DNA testing on the pantyhose used to strangle the victim because it wasn’t clear that tests would turn up any evidence.

“If the interpretation of the law as it stands now was enforced when I was trying to get access, I would not have been able to see that access,” Morton said. “We would not have been allowed to test it.”

Morton was wrongly convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife. He was exonerated in 2011 when DNA testing of a bandana found near the crime scene revealed sweat and skin cells linking another man, Mark Norwood, to the murder of Christine Morton. Norwood was convicted in 2013 and is serving a life sentence.

“As it stands now, we have something of a catch-22 in Texas,” Morton said. “You have to have proof of the biological evidence before they even allow you to test the biological evidence.”

Fifty-two people in Texas have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, the most of any state, according to the Innocence Project. In 21 of those cases, DNA testing led to identifying the real criminal.

In 2013, lawmakers passed a bill proposed by Ellis to mandate DNA testing for all biological evidence in death penalty cases. Gov. Greg Abbott, then attorney general, offered his support for the bill, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

Ellis said his new bill would clarify language in current DNA testing law.

“These changes are simple and would provide the courts with the clear guidance that they have asked for,” he said.

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Courts Criminal justice Michael Morton