Michael Morton Act: Increasing Transparency In The Justice System

June 28, 2016 by

It’s been just over three years since Gov. Rick Perry signed Texas Senate Bill 1611, more commonly know as the Michael Morton Act. Its purpose was to ensure transparency in the criminal justice system by creating an open discovery process and removing barriers for accessing evidence.

Michael Morton, the man whose story inspired the reform legislation, was convicted one year and five days after the murder of his wife Christine Morton in 1986. Morton was convicted despite any evidence pointing to his guilt and a mound of evidence showing he was likely innocent. One example being Morton’s two-year old son who told authorities, “Daddy was not home,” at the time of the murder.

During the investigation, neighbors reported seeing a green van parked behind the Morton home numerous times, and seeing the driver disappear into the woods. Just a short distance away from the scene of the crime, police found a bloody bandana. After the murder, police located Christine Morton’s missing credit card in San Antonio where a woman, who was known to San Antonio police, attempted to use it at a jewelry store.

None of this exculpatory evidence was made available to Michael Morton’s defense attorneys. Police and prosecutors had made up their mind that Morton had committed the crime and refused to let facts stop them from making their case.

When prosecutors will do anything – even withhold evidence – to ensure a win, then the justice system is turned on its head and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is thrown away.

Alarm bells went off for Morton’s defense attorneys when the prosecution announced it did not intend to call the chief investigator on the case. After the defense brought their concerns to the trial judge, he ordered all prosecution reports turned over. But the prosecutors left out the exculpatory reports, including the son’s testimony, the neighbors’ testimonies, and the information regarding the missing credit card.112_-_Mike_Chris_Er_733729c

With no evidence – only assumptions – linking Michael Morton to the murder, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2005 a judge granted a motion from Morton’s defense attorneys requesting to test the DNA found on the scene. In 2011, another request, this time to test the DNA on the bloody bandana, was also finally approved.

Police and prosecutors had made up their mind that Morton had committed the crime and refused to let facts stop them from making their case.

The results of the second DNA test were a bombshell. The tests identified the DNA of an unknown male. Using a DNA database system, Morton’s defense attorneys determined the DNA was from Mark Norwood, a convicted felon living in Texas at the time of the murder. Norwood’s DNA was also found at another murder that occurred under almost identical circumstances.

After serving almost 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder, Michael Morton was released in October of 2011 and exonerated just a week before Christmas.

Too often overzealous prosecutors who are determined to make a conviction, regardless of evidence, will do anything to ensure a win. Lives have been ruined and time, that can never be retrieved, taken away.

When prosecutors will do anything – even withhold evidence – to ensure a win, then the justice system is turned on its head and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is thrown away.

The Michael Morton Act is designed to prevent miscarriages of justice and restore trust in a system that wrongfully convicts more times than is acceptable. It also ensures that criminal defendants have a right to see the evidence against them without a court order.

It is a shame for all Texans that Michael Morton was forced to suffer for twenty-five years for a crime he did not commit. Thankfully, his ordeal has inspired the Michael Morton Act that will work to avoid a repeat of that injustice.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.