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.