The Truth Might Set You Free: How the Michael Morton Act Could Fundamentally Change Texas Criminal Discovery, Or Not
46 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2015
Date Written: September 25, 2015
Michael Morton spent twenty-five years in a Texas prison for the murder of his wife, a crime he always denied committing. Following investigation aimed at proving that he was innocent, blatant prosecutorial misconduct came to light. Potentially exculpatory evidence had been hidden by the District Attorney in the case, allowing the actual killer to remain free to kill another victim before finally confessing to his crime.
The attention this case attracted brought to light the stingy and discretionary discovery options available to criminal defendants in Texas, who were relegated to hoping that prosecutors would allow access to information in their files and would disclose at least what due process requires. In that environment, the Texas Legislature passed the Michael Morton Act, a significant amendment of Article 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
These changes in discovery law promised that disclosures would become virtually automatic, removing the trial judge and his or her discretion from the discovery process. While the Act represents a large step in the direction of fairer trials and reduced chances for wrongful conviction, gaps remain to be filled in order to realize its promise.
This article surveys the pre-Morton discovery landscape, summarizes the events leading to this important reform measure, and describes the Act’s requirements, limitations, and exclusions. It then suggests and analyzes ways in which Article 39.14 can be clarified and strengthened to deliver on its promise. Special consideration is given to the enforcement options that exist to remedy or deter violations, how those options fail, and the ways in which they may be altered in order to ensure compliance by all those working within Texas’s criminal justice system.
Keywords: Texas criminal procedure, criminal discovery, Michael Morton Act, Article 39.14, Texas discovery, Texas wrongful conviction
JEL Classification: K14, K40, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation