With exoneree Michael Morton by his side, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a measure that aims to avoid wrongful convictions by preventing prosecutors from suppressing evidence.
"This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system," Perry said of Senate Bill 1611, which was named for Morton, who spent 25 years in prison before being exonerated. It was the governor's first public signing ceremony of the session.
Morton was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. He was exonerated in 2011 after DNA testing connected another man to the brutal crime. In their investigation, Morton's lawyers discovered that the prosecutor in the original case had withheld critical evidence that could have pointed to the real killer and spared Morton the quarter-century he spent behind bars.
Since his exoneration, Morton has lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation that would prevent others from suffering the same fate. Under SB 1611, prosecutors will be required to turn over evidence to defendants accused of crimes and to keep a record of the evidence they disclose. The landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland already requires prosecutors to give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The Morton Act requires disclosure of evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. It is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.
Perry said it was fitting that his signing of the Michael Morton Act fell almost exactly 50 years after the Supreme Court issued the Brady ruling.
"We are known as a law and order state, and as such we've never been easy on those convicted of a crime in our state," Perry said. "With that tradition, however, comes a very powerful responsibility to make sure our judicial process is transparent and is as open as humanly possible."
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the bill's passage represented "an important milestone in the journey toward justice in Texas." Duncan said the legislation would help preserve liberty in the state.
After signing the bill, Perry handed Morton the pen he used to do it, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, presented Morton with the gavel used to mark the passage of the bill in the House.
Asked whether he would support legislation to create an innocence commission to investigate wrongful convictions like Morton's, Perry deferred, but said that he was open to proposals that would "make Texas a better place to live." He said the Legislature meets every two years and considers the need for changes to the criminal justice system.
"The process is always open from that standpoint," Perry said, adding, "The process I think works well for us."
The Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, hailed Perry's signing of the legislation, calling it historic.
“This is a great day for fairness in Texas,” Kathryn Kase, the group's executive director, said in a press release. “The Michael Morton Act will reduce wrongful convictions; it is something we can all be very proud of.”