How much would you pay for fewer faulty convictions?
Prosecutors say the state’s new Michael Morton Act, a measure designed to prevent wrongful convictions by forcing district attorneys to be more transparent in criminal cases, is driving up evidence costs.
“That is an issue for a lot of folks,” said Rob Kepple, executive director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
Kepple says prosecutors will have to hire more people and invest in better technology to streamline the release of documents to criminal defense lawyers.
Lawyers on both sides of the criminal courtroom say the Michael Morton Act — named after an Austin man who spent nearly 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for his wife’s murder — has raised awareness of the importance of sharing evidence. Prosecutors, however, are concerned about the cost to taxpayers of reproducing reams of information. And defense lawyers worry that some prosecutors could use the law to keep some evidence away from them.
Kepple said that he’s heard from several counties that “documentation has been a strain.”
The new law requires Texas prosecutors to release all “exculpatory” evidence — information that could prove a defendant’s innocence — to defense attorneys. That means a lot of copying costs and document storage and delivery concerns for Texas prosecutors and the law enforcement agencies who investigate crimes, Kepple and others said.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must produce “exculpatory” information that points to the innocence of a defendant.
But in Texas, prosecutors had been responsible for deciding which information would be considered exculpatory. A Texas Tribune investigation found that among 86 overturned convictions from 1989 to 2011, in 17 cases courts found that prosecutors failed to give defense lawyers exculpatory evidence.
“The Michael Morton Act has codified Brady,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents defendants facing the death penalty.
All due respect, but prosecutors need to suck it up and follow the law here. I guarantee, whatever the cost of complying with the Michael Morton Act, it’s a lot less than the cost of locking up an innocent person, whether that person is subsequently exonerated or not. The criminal justice system is never going to be perfect, but the Michael Morton Act is a step in the direction of making it better. It’s worth the extra cost on your county’s DA office. Grits has more.