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Michael Morton still has work to do

We should be glad he’s doing it.

Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, said Monday that under current DNA testing requirements, he wouldn’t have had access to the evidence that led to his release.

Morton joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project at a press conference to urge passage of a bill to expand access to DNA testing in criminal cases.

“This is about making sure the right person is convicted and making sure our communities are safe,” Ellis said.

Senate Bill 487 would allow courts to grant DNA testing for pieces of evidence that have a “reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material, like saliva or sweat, that may not be visible to the naked eye.

A February 2014 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set a precedent of only granting DNA testing on pieces of evidence if there was proof that DNA evidence existed on those items. The court denied death row inmate Larry Swearingen’s request for DNA testing on the pantyhose used to strangle the victim because it wasn’t clear that tests would turn up any evidence.

“If the interpretation of the law as it stands now was enforced when I was trying to get access, I would not have been able to see that access,” Morton said. “We would not have been allowed to test it.”

SB487 would clarify another bill by Sen. Ellis from last session (SB1292) that mandated DNA testing for all biological evidence in death penalty cases. That’s in addition to the Michael Morton bill that will more tightly control the disclosure of evidence by prosecutors to the defense. The Observer highlights the importance of this session’s effort.

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Who knows, maybe if now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley hadn’t worked so hard to waste everyone’s time back then, he’d still be DA now. Too bad for him. SB487 should have bipartisan support but there still needs to be a House sponsor. Let’s get on with this, y’all. Grits has a copy of Sen. Ellis’ press release, and the Innocence Project has more.

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