With exoneree Michael Morton by his side, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a measure that aims to avoid wrongful convictions by preventing prosecutors from suppressing evidence.
“This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” Perry said of Senate Bill 1611, which was named for Morton, who spent 25 years in prison before being exonerated. It was the governor’s first public signing ceremony of the session.
Under SB 1611, prosecutors will be required to turn over evidence to defendants accused of crimes and to keep a record of the evidence they disclose. The landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland already requires prosecutors to give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The Morton Act requires disclosure of evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. It is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the bill’s passage represented “an important milestone in the journey toward justice in Texas.” Duncan said the legislation would help preserve liberty in the state.
After signing the bill, Perry handed Morton the pen he used to do it, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, presented Morton with the gavel used to mark the passage of the bill in the House.
Well done all around. When SB1611 was first introduced, it was opposed by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on the grounds that it would have also required defense attorneys to open their files to discovery, much like prosecutors are required to do. I hadn’t followed this bill very closely so I wasn’t sure if the TCDLA was now on board with SB1611 – their website and Facebook page give no indication that I could find. I eventually found a comment by TDCLA President-elect Bobby Sims on this Grits post (scroll all the way down; Sims’ handle is Longhorn74) which makes it clear that in the end the TDCLA did support SB1611. All’s well that ends well. It would be nice if there were an equally happy ending for HB166, the bill to establish an Innocence Commission, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. One step at a time, I guess.