A new Texas law that took effect January 1 of this year should help even
the playing field for citizens on trial for alleged crimes. The law clarifies
and expands prosecutors' obligation to turn over to the defense any
evidence that may help exonerate the accused.
For years Texas prosecutors have been required to turn over such exculpatory
evidence only when the defendant showed there was good cause for doing
so. The new law makes the required disclosure mandatory in all cases.
Any evidence and copies of any document, including lab reports, police
reports and witness statements, that tend to show the defendant is not
guilty or that would reduce the punishment, must be turned over. The effect
of the law will be to give the defense substantially the same information
the prosecution has in its files.
The new law is known as the Michael Morton Act, after a Texas man who was
wrongfully convicted of
murder after the prosecution withheld evidence that tended to show he was innocent.
Morton was freed on the basis of new DNA evidence, after serving almost
25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The prosecutor in that
case failed to turn over a witness statement that suggested someone else
committed the crime, as well as information about a suspicious vehicle
in the vicinity of the victim's home. Significantly, when the judge
in the original murder trial asked the prosecutor if he had any additional
evidence that would be helpful to the accused, he said no.
The new law should help prevent innocent people being convicted due to
bad behavior by prosecutors. But it will still take vigilant and aggressive
defense counsel in many cases to make sure the state's attorneys are
playing by the rules and turning over all they are required to disclose.