AUSTIN, Texas — The state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved the Michael Morton Act, a measure named in honor of a Texan who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and designed to prevent future wrongful convictions.
After their vote, senators stood and applauded and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst banged a specially engraved wooden gavel that was later awarded to a beaming Morton, who watched the proceedings from just off the floor — a long way from the prison cell he was still sitting in just two years ago.
The measure now heads to the House for consideration.
Morton, 58, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1986 slaying of his wife Christine, but freed in October 2011, after DNA testing was done on a bloody bandanna originally found near the couple’s Austin home. Investigators said the DNA evidence led them to another man, Mark Alan Norwood, whose DNA was in a national database as a result of his long criminal history.
Norwood was convicted last month and sentenced to life in prison for killing Christine Morton. He also has been indicted in a 1988 slaying of another woman who lived near the Mortons.
Morton has repeatedly appeared at the state Capitol in recent weeks to push for Senate Bill 1611, which would create a uniform “open file” policy in Texas, compelling prosecutors to share case files with defense attorneys that can help defendants’ cases.
The district attorney at Morton’s trial, Ken Anderson, is accused of deliberately withholding evidence from the defense that indicated Morton’s innocence. Anderson, now a state district judge, has been the subject of a special Court of Inquiry to determine if prosecutorial misconduct occurred — but no ruling has yet been issued.
The Morton Act’s sponsor, Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, told the chamber that “Michael’s tragic case brought to the forefront something that we already knew in Texas but too often neglected.”
“Our criminal discovery process needs serious reform. Exculpatory evidence was in possession of the state in his case, but it was never revealed for over 25 years,” Ellis said. “Regardless of whether those facts were intentional or not, what is clear is that a more open, transparent discovery process would help Michael Morton and hopefully many other people in Texas.”
Ellis said many counties across the state already use “open file” policies for all criminal cases, but some didn’t, making the change proposed in the bill especially necessary.
The measure was originally held up by some senators who worried that sharing certain information with defense attorneys could place witnesses or victims in jeopardy in some cases. But negotiations between Ellis and Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and former prosecutor, inserted language to remove names of victims or witnesses from case files if they could be in danger.
“It brings us to a place that will be fair both to the defendant and to prosecutors and the victims and witnesses,” Huffman said of the final bill.
Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, had already apologized on behalf of the chamber to Morton. He said Thursday that passing the bill was one of the Senate’s finest moments, and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, agreed.
“Hopefully, we don’t have more Michael Morton stories in Texas’ future,” Davis said.