An opinion (here) in The Stateman (Austin) yesterday commended the Texas legislature for pending legislation aimed at reducing wrongful conviction. After some challenge by district attorneys and a resulting amendment that protects witnesses and victims, the Texas Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 1611, known as the Michael Morton bill, which would create a uniform “open file” policy in the state, thus requiring the prosecution to share all files with defense attorneys.
According to the opinion piece, the Senate has also passed a bill “that would give exonerated Texans four years from the date of their release from prison to pursue allegations that a prosecutor hid evidence. The statute of limitations currently begins at the time a violation occurs — a provision that makes it all but impossible to hold prosecutors accountable.”
Another bill awaiting a House hearing “would give Texas courts the authority to overturn convictions based on new science that contradicts evidence used during a trial.”
The opinion notes that in addition to inestimable human suffering, wrongful conviction has been costly to Texas taxpayers. “Since 1992, about $65 million have been paid to people who spent time in prison for crimes they did not commit.”
This, of course, does not include the human and financial costs of incarcerating innocent people and of subsequent crimes committed by the real perpetrators who escaped justice.
Case in point: Michael Morton served nearly 25 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in the beating death of his wife Christine. DNA eventually linked the crime to Mark Alan Norwood. Morton was exonerated amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the form of failure to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. Norwood was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Norwood also has been charged with the 1988 beating death of Debra Baker in her Austin home, which occurred while the innocent Morton was in prison. This tragic example of bungled justice—among many others—should motivate citizens, criminal justice professionals, and legislators well beyond Texas to commit to best practices and reforms that can reduce wrongful conviction. Enough is enough.