Michael Morton Act is Signed in Texas but the State Leads the Nation in Exonerations

This month Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, more commonly known as the Michael Morton Act, which aims to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the state.

Few cases highlight more graphically the deficit in Texas’ criminal justice system than that of Michael Morton. Morton wrongly spent 25 years in jail for the murder of his wife Christine.

Eventually DNA revealed another man committed the murder. In March 2013, a jury convicted Mark Alan Norwood of the crime.

“Texas is a law-and-order state, and with that tradition comes a responsibility to make our judicial process as transparent and open as possible,” Gov. Perry said, according to a press release. “Senate Bill 1611 helps serve that cause, making our system fairer and helping prevent wrongful convictions and penalties harsher than what is warranted by the facts.”

The Michael Morton Act is intended to make Texas’ criminal justice system 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.

But the passage of the bill will not erase the state’s poor record for wrongful convictions overnight.

“The irony is embodied in the now-deceased person of Cameron Todd Willingham, who also points to the unfinished work. Those intimately familiar with Texas’ criminal justice history can tell you that Willingham, even more than Michael Morton — whose case prompted this legislation — is the state’s prime example of wrongful conviction,” reported MySanAntonio.

New evidence would be too late for Willingham who Texas executed in 2004. He was convicted on the strength of what the report described as “highly flawed arson evidence for the deaths of his three daughters in Corsicana.”

There was no evidence of arson, the report stated.

It is likely — if not certain — that Texas executed an innocent man. At the very least, the new evidence pointed to the need for a new trial. But the state ignored the report,” stated MySanAntonio.

Morton’s case is hardly an isolated one. Texas leads the nation with 117 exonerations, the report said.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.