EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, August 15, 2014

Open File: Assessing Texas' Michael Morton Act

An article from kvue.com notes

that the Williamson County Attorney's office now processes four times more digital evidence than it did a year ago. It's doing so along with every county in Texas to comply with the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to turn over all evidence collected by law enforcement.

So, what exactly is Texas' Michael Morton Act, and why was it passed?

Let's start with the why. In 1987, Michael Morton was convicted of murdering his wife, Christine. Thereafter,

In 2005, the Innocence Project took on Michael’s case. For five years, his attorneys requested that Williamson County conduct DNA testing on a bloody bandana that had been discovered behind the Morton home the day after the murder. An appellate court ordered that the testing go forward in 2010. The following year, DNA testing detected Christine’s blood intermingled with the DNA of an unknown male, who was later identified as a Bastrop dishwasher named Mark Alan Norwood. Michael’s DNA was absent from the bandana. Michael was released from prison on October 3, 2011, and was subsequently exonerated. Norwood was arrested later that fall and indicted for Christine’s murder.


An investigation conducted by the Innocence Project showed that Williamson County had been in possession of several documents that suggested that Michael was innocent. They included a transcript of a conversation between Christine’s mother and an investigator regarding comments that the Mortons’ three-year-old son, Eric, had made about witnessing the murder. Eric had insisted that his father was not present during the killing and that a man with a “big mustache” had murdered his mother. Former D.A. Ken Anderson was subsequently the subject of a 2013 inquiry into whether or not he withheld evidence from the defense and broke the law.

The Michael Morton case also prompted the passage of the Michael Morton Act. According to the press release accompanying the act,

The Michael Morton Act will allow Texas' criminal justice system to be more responsive to a case, even after it has been tried, by ensuring a more open discovery process. The bill's open file policy allows for broader discovery, and removes barriers for accessing any evidence, except for items that would affect the security of a victim or witness.

Here is a link to the language of the act. Of course, prosecutors were opposed to the Act, and some have demanded waivers from the defense before handing over Michael Morton Act discovery. Some counties have also groused, with the kvue.com article noting that "Williamson County and several others in Texas estimate the new law will cost them more than $100,000 each in added costs." Of course, this begs the question of whether you can put a price tag on justice.



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