All that remains to be done to make the Michael Morton Act state law is for Gov. Rick Perry to do the expected and sign it. This necessary legislation, which once appeared doomed in the Texas Senate before winning unanimous approval there and, on Tuesday, in the Texas House, brings statewide consistency to criminal cases by requiring prosecutors to share information with defense lawyers.
When the governor puts his signature on this important act, a statewide “open file” policy will be created. Such a policy should help prevent the kind of wrongful conviction that sent Morton to prison for almost 25 years for the murder of his wife, Christine.
Former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was arrested in April after a special court found he hid potentially exculpatory evidence to secure Morton’s conviction. Anderson potentially faces a criminal trial for allegedly failing to share information that pointed to Morton’s innocence.
DNA testing connected Mark Alan Norwood to Christine Morton’s 1986 murder. A jury in San Angelo convicted Norwood in March of killing Morton and sentenced him to life in prison. Norwood also has been charged with the 1988 beating death of Debra Baker in her Austin home.
The Michael Morton Act, which was co-authored by Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Republican state Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, almost didn’t make it out of the Senate. District attorneys had expressed concern that the bill put at risk the safety of witnesses and victims, prompting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to push a reasonable compromise that allows prosecutors to delete identifying information from their files before turning them over to defense lawyers.
A related bill giving exonerated Texans four years from the date of their release from prison to pursue allegations that a prosecutor hid evidence also has been sent to the governor for him to sign. Under current law, the four-year statute of limitations begins at the time a violation occurs, a preposterous provision that makes it all but impossible to hold prosecutors accountable.
Anderson, now a state district judge, denies he withheld favorable evidence before and during Morton’s 1987 trial. His attorneys argue that he is protected from prosecution by the statute of limitations. The legislation resetting the statute of limitations, authored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is not retroactive and won’t apply to Anderson once Perry signs it into law, which he is expected to do.
Additional measures addressing the problem of wrongful convictions await legislative action. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee held a hearing Tuesday on a proposal sponsored by Ellis and Democratic state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon of San Antonio to create a nine-member Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to investigate wrongful convictions. Cole was the Lubbock man who died in prison in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence for rape. He was posthumously cleared by DNA evidence and pardoned by Perry.
McClendon’s bill passed the House in April on a strong 115-28 bipartisan vote, but Ellis told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the measure, strongly opposed by prosecutors, doesn’t have enough votes yet to pass the 31-member Senate.
Texas has recorded 125 wrongful convictions since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. As though we needed another example of prosecutors forgetting that justice is not synonymous with winning a guilty verdict, two weeks ago the state officially dismissed its murder case against Randolph Arledge, who had been convicted in 1984 of killing Carol Armstrong near Corsicana.
Prosecutors relied on the false testimony of a jailhouse cellmate to win Arledge’s conviction while downplaying testimony that signaled Arledge’s innocence. Arledge sat in prison for 29 years until DNA testing finally cleared him of Armstrong’s murder and led to his release in February.
Wrongful convictions undermine criminal justice. This session, legislators have taken significant and positive steps to try to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the future and ensure that verdicts will be delivered against the guilty while the innocent walk free.