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Michael Morton Act: An Innocent Man Spent 24 ½ Years in Prison

Being imprisoned unjustly is a nightmare for anyone who has had to live through it, as well as their families and loved ones. In the case of Michael Morton, the imprisonment lasted for almost 25 years before his conviction was overturned. Morton was wrongly accused of the murder of his wife in 1986. He was found guilty and sentenced, serving 24 ½ years before lawyers working on his case discovered information that was withheld at trial.

A New Act Signed into Law

Michael MortonMorton’s not the only U.S. citizen to be wrongly convicted, but as a result of his particular experience a new Act has been signed into Texas law that overhauls the state’s criminal discovery process. And the Michael Morton Act might be just the ticket to keeping you out of jail in a similar situation! If you’re accused of a crime, a skilled criminal defense attorney in Texas will be able to use the provisions made by this Act to ensure that you get justice and a fair trial.

Purpose of the Act

Signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry on May 16, 2013, the intent behind the Michael Morton Act is to reduce wrongful convictions by preventing the deliberate omission of key facts from the trial. Morton’s conviction was found to be largely a result of the prosecution’s refusal to provide access to certain information to the defense attorneys.

Highlights

The Act was designed to ensure that never again will it be possible for the prosecution to hide information that can clear the defendant. The highlights of the Morton Act show that this has been achieved, and the main points that will affect future cases are:

1) Smoother Discovery Application Process

The former restrictions around the method of asking for information have been removed. Now, all that’s required is that the defense makes the request. Although it’s still preferable to make it in writing to ensure a reliable paper trail, it’s not essential. Gaining access to information often meant the defense attorneys had to rely on the generosity of the prosecutor, or they didn’t get to see crucial evidence.

2) More Information Is Available

One of the important aspects of the new Act, and one which was missing when Michael Morton faced a jury, is the requirement to allow the defense full access to all reports and information. This includes handwritten notes taken by the arresting officers, written statements by witnesses and the defendant. It also includes critical information that could show the defendant’s innocence. If any of these pieces of information are destroyed, the officials involved could face charges.

The inclusion of this requirement is a direct result of the Morton case, where a bloody bandanna that was found at the scene of the crime was excluded from the trial. Eventually, DNA testing of the blood confirmed Morton’s innocence and the guilt of the real perpetrator. Also, prosecutors in the past used access to discovery as leverage to get defendants to waive some of their legal rights, often damaging their case in the process.

3) Copies of Information Are Allowed

Previously, defense lawyers had to take notes of everything because they weren’t allowed to make copies of the documentation. This was a recipe for omission, because of the extensive quantities of documents involved in the discovery process. Now, the defense has the right to make electronic or printed copies of any and all information, including materials that have sections redacted for confidentiality purposes. And only information that is not relevant to the case is allowed to be redacted.

4) New Evidence after Trial

In the past, the prosecution was required to disclose all evidence to the defense team up until conviction. Now, even after conviction, if evidence comes to light that can clear the defendant’s name (also called “Brady” evidence), the prosecution is required to turn it over to the defense. This means that someone wrongfully convicted can still be cleared even once the case is completely over.

How the Act Affects You

If you’re accused of a crime, the new Act means your criminal defense lawyer in Texas has access to all the information available on your case—not just what the prosecutor feels like giving him. Even after conviction, you could still be cleared if new evidence is found that proves your innocence.

In some parts of Texas, many of these practices were already in use before the signing of the Act. In others, this creates changes that can make a huge difference to anyone wrongfully accused of a crime. There are still a few grey areas, because prosecutors often disagree with defense lawyers about what information is classified as Brady evidence. All the same, the Michael Morton Act is likely to improve the fairness of the state’s justice system finally.

*Image courtesy of NPR

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