On January 1, 2014, the Michael Morton Act goes into effect in the state of Texas. This historic change in the law is the result of Morton being wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder back in 1987. In that case, the prosecutor deliberately withheld from defense counsel evidence that would have exonerated him. Instead, Morton was sentenced to life in prison. He spent nearly 25 years behind bars before being released once the evidence was finally made available.
As a result of that horrific episode in Texas criminal jurisprudence, this new law levels the playing field regarding the exchange of information between prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases. In short, it will allow defense attorneys much greater access to information that could negate the guilt of or reduce the punishment of the offense for which their client has been charged. The amended statute is found in section 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. However, this new statute will concern ONLY crimes committed on or after January 1, 2014.
Previously, defense attorneys did have access to exculpatory, mitigating and impeaching evidence; but, it was incumbent upon them to prove that this information was material to their client’s defense. Under the Act, defense attorneys will no longer be required to show that the information is material in order for it to be turned over. Essentially, the prosecution must provide virtually every piece of evidence in their file requested by defense attorneys in preparation for their client’s defense. Thus, defense attorney’s now have in place an open file rule that is more truly “open” than in years past. In fact, prior to 1966, defense counsel were routinely barred from seeing ANYTHING in the prosecutions file. That year, Article 39.14 loosened restrictions on discovery somewhat. Still, defense attorneys often had to, among other things, submit motions for discovery specifically designating what was to be discovered and to show good cause why they wanted the evidence. And with stringent requirements such as those in place, courts very often ruled against the information’s release.
There are some limitations in place. Some notes, reports and communications between prosecutors, investigators and staff are still considered privileged and beyond the reach of the defense. Additionally, defense counsel must submit a written request to be provided copies of the evidence. However, upon a timely written request from the defendant, the state shall “as soon as practicable, produce and permit discovery,” of the requested materials.
The biggest limitation of the new law is that the discovered information is only to be utilized on a “need to know” basis. In other words, defense counsel may NOT share evidence with anyone outside of the defense team. This means defendants are not entitled to be provided with copies of the information, but are to be informed of the information as it pertains to their defense. Defendants may view the material, but are not entitled to an individual copy. For pro se defendants (defending yourself), prosecutors shall permit the defendant to inspect and review the items. Copying of the material is not required in cases where a pro se defendant is involved. This is the trade-off for the state being so open.
The bottom line is, under the new provisions of the Michael Moore Act, if you are a criminal defendant and you want information regarding your case, it is much easier now because you may simply ask and you shall receive.