Senate Criminal Justice Committee Passes Michael Morton Act

Ellis/Duncan landmark reform revamps Texas’ discovery statute for first time in half century

(Austin, Texas)// The Senate Criminal Justice Committee today passed SB 1611, the Michael Morton Act, landmark reform revamping Texas’ discovery statute for the first time since 1965.

The legislation by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) will provide for a reliable justice system by ensuring that all relevant evidence that speaks to a defendant’s innocence or guilt is revealed. It creates a uniform, statutory “open file” criminal discovery policy for the State of Texas.

“Discovery reform is simply vital to the reliability and quality of our justice system,” said Ellis. “We must weigh all relevant evidence and ensure we bring all the relevant facts to light to safeguard the innocent, convict only the guilty, and provide justice the people of Texas can have faith in. We look forward to working with our House sponsor, Representative Senfronia Thompson, to get this important legislation to the Governor’s desk.”

“I have long been an advocate for an efficient, effective and uniform court system across Texas. This legislation is a giant step forward in reaching that goal,” Duncan said. “I am proud that stakeholders from across the state were able to come together and set aside their differences to improve our criminal justice system.”

The legislation is the culmination of weeks of talks between stakeholders and relevant parties who put countless hours into this effort with Senators Ellis and Duncan, their staff, judges, particularly Judge Barbara Hervey, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, the Governor’s office, Thomas Ratliff, Michael Morton and his attorneys, and more. Each of these men, women, and organizations put the interests of justice ahead of self-interest, and by coming together helped created a truly historic justice reform.

Mr. Morton had the following statement read into record:
“I would like to thank all of the interested parties that have worked on this legislation. I would especially like to thank Senators Ellis and Duncan and their staff for the many hours spent drafting and negotiating the language that has gotten us to this point.
“Sitting where I sit today, I can say I have seen the best and the worst of the Texas Criminal Justice System. Having had such a unique vantage point, I hope that my experience allows me to contribute in such in such a way as to protect those things that make the system work and to change those things that weaken it.
“I have previously said I do not want a revolution and I am not out for revenge. My goal has been and continues to be to effectuate changes that promote transparency and accountability. I believe this bill is a positive step towards that goal.
“Like any negotiation, it is not a perfect bill. Nobody got everything they wanted, including me. However, I support SB 1611 and I ask for your favorable consideration.”

Specifically, SB 1611:
1. Removes barriers to disclosure:
• Defendants currently have to show “good cause” before getting access to evidence. SB 1611 removes that barrier to bring Texas in line with almost every other state and the Federal system
2. Ensures more relevant evidence has to be disclosed, such as:
• Offense reports,
• Written or recorded statements of the defendant and witnesses,
• And any other exculpatory evidence that may be relevant to the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
3. Allows prosecutors to withhold information through a protective order to protect victim and witness safety.
4. Provides greater transparency, by requiring a record of all items disclosed to avoid disputes later in the process.
5. Requires continuing discovery after trial has commenced.

“Passage of the Michael Morton Act will increase transparency and accountability in criminal cases at a stage when we can still prevent wrongful convictions like Mr. Morton’s. I want to thank Mr. Morton for using the stature he has gained as a living testimony of the flaws of our criminal justice system to enact real change and prevent other Texans from sharing his fate,” Ellis said.

“He reminds us of the flaws in our system and the consequences of injustice. His faith, grace, courage and strength are reminders that humanity can shine through even the darkest and most inhumane treatment, and that hope and belief in the truth can move mountains and save lives,” Ellis said.

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