The Texas House on Monday gave early approval to expanding DNA testing in criminal cases, an effort to prevent the incarceration of innocent Texans like Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Morton, who was wrongly convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife, has said that under current DNA testing requirements he wouldn’t have had access to the evidence that led to his release. Defendants in a criminal case who request DNA testing have to meet a high standard that critics say is a sort of Catch-22: They have to prove that a piece of evidence contains DNA evidence before a court will grant testing on that item. The requirement stems from a ruling last year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Senate Bill 487 by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, which was tentatively approved on a voice vote by the House on Monday, would lower that bar, requiring only a “reasonable likelihood” that an item contains DNA evidence.
The bill passed the Senate in April, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, another Houston Democrat, carried Ellis’ measure in the House. If the measure gets final approval from the House, it will go to the governor's desk.
Morton was exonerated in 2011 when forensic analysis 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.
According to the New York-based Innocence Project, 52 people in Texas have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, the most of any state. In 21 of those cases, DNA testing led to identifying the real criminal.