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St. Mary's Law Journal

Abstract

Twenty-five years ago, Texas prosecutors significantly limited the pre-trial discovery it disclosed to criminal defendants. As a result of this policy, innocent individuals accused of murder, like Michael Morton, were denied their right to due process. Michael Morton was incarcerated for twenty-five years following a wrongful murder conviction. He was denied access to crucial evidence, which included a bandana with the victim’s blood and the killer’s hair, and eyewitness accounts describing the killer at or near the time of the murder. The prosecutor purposely withheld this evidence from Michael Morton; but thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated. Major changes in the criminal justice system occurred while Michael Morton was incarcerated. In Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court held a prosecutor’s suppression of favorable evidence violated a criminal defendant’s due process rights. Following the Brady decision, subsequent cases broadened the scope of discovery, but the prosecution was still under no legal obligation to provide the criminal defendant with any incriminating evidence. Furthermore, prosecutors had the discretion to categorize evidence as either Brady material (favorable evidence) or incriminating evidence. This practice remained in effect until the exoneration of Michael Morton which prompted the Texas legislature to enact Senate Bill 1611 (SB 1611), also known as the Michael Morton Act (the Act). The Act imposed a statutory duty on the prosecution which required them to continually disclose exculpatory, mitigating, and impeaching evidence to a criminal defendant. The Act essentially created an open file policy alleviating some of the criminal defendant’s burden on procuring discoverable evidence and reducing the likelihood the prosecutor would withhold favorable or incriminating evidence. Thanks to the Michael Morton Act, future litigants will be better served in the criminal justice system.

Publisher

St. Mary's University School of Law

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