Monday, May 13, 2013

New evidence law vindicates man falsely convicted

Michael Morton and family at time of wife's murder
Son - Mommy was 'sleeping in the flowers'

Austin – As Michael Morton stood watching from the House gallery, legislators swiftly passed a law that will force prosecutors to share witness evidence and exculpatory items with defendants.

Mr. Morton spent 25 years of his life in prison after a wrongful conviction for his wife's murder – when all along prosecutors had evidence that he was not guilty.

His nightmare began in Georgetown in 1987, when a man broke into the family home and clubbed his wife, Christine, to death while his 3-year-old son watched.

Investigators believed the child's tale because he mentioned that the killer draped a blue suitcase over the woman's dead body in a bizarre ritual to perhaps conceal her remains or offer her some form of comfort following the brutal bludgeoning.

The grandmother and her grandchild then gave an investigator a full statement about the matter, including the information that his father was not at home at the time. Inexplicably, that information was nowhere to be found at the time of the trial, despite the judge's granting a motion to discover all evidence, both incriminating and exculpatory, to be used against the defendant at his trial.

The statement and report were not made a part of the case file. The information languished in a court annex storage facility under a separate cover, unavailable to attorneys for the defense.

It took a lot of hard work by the Innocent Project, 25 years, and a court order to pry it loose from confidential files kept by the Williamson County District Attorney's office. Seven weeks ago, a jury convicted Mark Alan Norwood for the murder, using DNA evidence obtained from the crime scene and witness statement of the child.

Former prosecutor,  District Judge Ken Anderson
In April, a Ft. Worth state district court judge issued an arrest warrant for District Court Judge Ken Anderson, the prosecutor who at the time withheld the exculpatory evidence that would have exonerated Mr. Morton. The judge ruled that there is sufficient evidence that Judge Anderson was guilty of all three charges brought against him – criminal contempt of court, tampering with evidence, and tampering with government records.

Said Mr. Morton following a voice vote, “Had it (S.B. 1611) been in force when I was tried and arrested and all that, I wouldn't have gone to prison, I wouldn't have been convicted.”

The bill awaits a procedural vote by the House of Representatives and the Governor's signature before it becomes final.

Authored by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the bill amends the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure's rules for discovery by requiring that prosecutors “shall disclose to the defendant any exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating document, item, or documenting document, items or information in the possession, custody, or control of the state that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant or would tend to reduce the punishment for the offense charged.”

It also requires that before a guilty plea or plea of nolo contendere be deemed acceptable to either prosecutors, or defense attorneys, defendants and judges, “each party shall acknowledge in writing or on the record in open court the disclosure, receipt, and list all documents, items and information provided to the defendant under this article.”

The information may be disclosed only to the 'inner circle' of the defendant's legal defense team, or, in the case of a defendant representing himself, only allow the inspection of documents, but not turning over copies of them. All identifying information such as addresses, driver's license, social security and banking account numbers must be redacted from witnesses' statements to protect their identity.

Many prosecutors from throughout the state presented heavy opposition to the bill, protesting its sweeping effects and the danger it may pose to those who come forward to provide information to be used against criminal offenders.

A key provision of Sen. Whitmire's bill requires that anyone convicted of violating the amended procedural law receive a public rebuke, rather than a private reprimand from State Bar officials.


The new procedure is a key feature of what will surely become hot contention in the race for District Attorney of McLennan County in the election cycle of 2014.

Along with two other members of the local defense bar, attorney Jonathan Sibley has made public protest in Commissioners Court of the policy of District Attorney Abel Reyna to not allow inspection of the prosecution's records of the investigation of an alleged offense until after the Grand Jury hands down an indictment.
District Attorney Abel Reyna

He is widely considered a probable opponent of Mr. Reyna in the upcoming primary election, and blamed the DA's discovery policy for slowing down the plea bargaining process. He and his associates alleged that this practice thereby subsequently caused overcrowding of the McLennan County Jail and Jack Harwell Detention Center.

He added, “I finally got mad about it.” He made mention of the Morton case and the case against Judge Anderson for his prosecutorial misconduct in the 1987 trial.

The resulting controversy culminated in McLennan DA's staff dropping seven indictments for engaging in organized criminal activity in a car theft scheme involving the trade of methamphetamines for the car.

A Waco Police detective named Sherry Kingrey refused to produce the names of confidential informants to prosecutors. She obtained the backing of the Waco police chief and assistant police chief, who appeared before 19th District Judge Ralph Strother in an ex parte appeal to reverse his earlier decision that the confidential informants should be named to prosecutors.

The judge remarked at the time that in 19 years of experience as a prosecutor, he had never seen a similar controversy erupt in any case.

That information is required by statute in drug offenses, or drug-related cases.

No comments:

Post a Comment