The Michael Morton Act: Its Necessity and Its Impact
In August of 1986, Michael Morton was an average man, working at a supermarket in Williamson County, Texas. He was a husband to his wife, Christine Morton, and a father to their three-year-old son, Eric. On the 12th of August, Morton and his family went out to dinner to celebrate his birthday, returned home, and fell asleep. The next morning, Morton left a note for his wife before heading off to work at 5:30 a.m., knowing nothing of what was to come next. Later that same morning, his wife was found bludgeoned to death in their bed. Six weeks later, Morton was arrested for the murder of Christine, despite having no previous criminal record. He stood firm in a not guilty plea, resulting in a trial date being set for the 9th of February 1987. As the trial was approaching, Morton’s defense attorneys learned that the prosecution was not planning on calling the chief investigator in the case, Sergeant Don Woods, to the stand. They felt as though the prosecution might be covering up potentially exonerating evidence, and they relayed these concerns to the trial judge who, in turn, ordered the prosecution to turn over all of Woods’ reports for review. The records turned over by the prosecution, however, were missing key evidence.
Within just the first few weeks post Christine Morton’s murder, Sgt. Don Woods and other Williamson County investigators had discovered key details about the case that, if brought to light in the trial, could have exponentially changed Michael Morton’s fate for the better. Eric Morton, the young son of Michael and Christine Morton, had described the entire murder and crime scene in detail to his grandmother, claiming specifically that his father had not been home when it occurred. He had described the murderer as a “monster” but made it very clear that it was not his father. This testimony had been reported to Woods by Eric’s grandmother. Neighbors of the Morton family had been questioned by Williamson County investigators following the murder and reported having seen a man park a green van on the street behind the Morton home and walk into the wooded area behind the house multiple times. Finally, there was an attempt to use Christine Morton’s credit card at a jewelry store in San Antonio which had been reported to the Williamson County Sheriff’s office. None of this evidence was found in Sgt. Woods’ reports that were turned over to the judge. Due to this, no exculpatory evidence was found in his review and the trial proceeded as usual.
During the trial, the prosecution called no witnesses and presented no physical evidence to link Morton with the murder. Instead, they hypothesized that Morton had killed his wife before he left for work due to her rejection of being intimate with him the previous night. They obtained this information from a note that Morton had left his wife expressing his disappointment that she did not want to be intimate, although he had ended the note with a statement of his love for her. Morton and his defense upheld that he had nothing to do with the crime committed and that an intruder must have broken in after he left and killed his wife. The jury sided with the prosecution, finding Morton guilty of the murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Neither Morton nor his defense team gave up, taking subsequent actions for a number of years, most of which proved to be unhelpful. However, in 2011, Morton was granted testing on a bloody bandana that had been recovered at a construction site near the Morton home the day after the murder took place. The testing revealed the DNA of two people: Christine Morton and a man who had committed a similar murder just a couple years after the murder of Christine. Michael Morton was released from prison and officially exonerated in the late months of 2011, after serving 25 years in prison.
Exculpatory evidence is evidence that tends to establish a criminal defendant’s innocence. It has the potential and high likelihood of ensuring an individual is not wrongfully convicted for a crime that he or she did not commit. Such evidence in this case was the eyewitness account of the crime by Morton’s son, the neighbors’ reports of a man with a green van parking behind the Morton home, and the attempt by someone to use Christine Morton’s credit card in San Antonio. Each of these pieces of evidence, if handled properly, may have changed the outcome of Morton’s trial and proven his innocence. Instead, years of his life were stripped away from him as he was locked in prison for a crime that he did not commit. It is important for prosecutors to disclose this type of evidence when it is known to them so that all facts of the case may be presented to the jury and/or judge who will decide the fate of the person on trial. Whether or not the prosecution believes that the evidence will lead to the right trial outcome, they must disclose that evidence so that a decision can be made with full knowledge of all the different details and circumstances of an offense. For these reasons, the Michael Morton Act was enacted in Texas in January of 2014. The law requires the prompt and complete disclosure of all information held by the prosecution in all criminal cases upon request by the defense.
The Michael Morton Act requires the disclosure of all pertinent information held by the prosecution in criminal cases. Case law with a similar intention has been in effect for longer than the Michael Morton Act. In particular, one can look to Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court case that decided that the state must disclose “favorable” evidence to the defense, such as exculpatory material, admissible evidence, and evidence that can be used to impeach State’s witnesses. Under this case law, the prosecution has the discretion to decide what is or is not considered exculpatory. These actions taken by the prosecution can either benefit or hurt the defense. The Michael Morton Act takes this a step further and requires the disclosure of all information, including police reports and witness statements, held by the prosecution to the defense upon request. It does not focus solely on exculpatory evidence, ensuring that nothing is being covered up or kept hidden by the prosecution. There is no burden on the defense requiring them to have a reason to request it under the Act. Instead, they simply must be mindful in filing the request, which most any competent defense attorney will do. There are also no restrictions or requirements on the form of the discovery. Written or recorded statements by the defense or witnesses as well as witness statements by police officers may all be included as forms of discovery. In summation, this law allows the criminal defense team access to all of the information upon which the prosecution is basing its case.
The Michael Morton Act ensures much more fairness than seen previously in other laws with the same aim and intention. It greatly reduces prosecutorial misconduct, however, there are still loopholes that can be utilized by prosecutors in order to undermine the defense. It does not state a hard time limit in which the prosecutors must turn over the evidence they have, but rather that they must do so as soon as possible; this may result in delays in the defense receiving key information that may be advantageous to them when building their argument. This incident, however, would only occur as a direct result of prosecutorial misconduct in which the State sits on discovered evidence before turning it over and claiming it as newly found. While this potential disadvantage does exist, the law also requires the prosecution to continuously disclose any new evidence they come across. This is helpful to the defense because it negates the need for them to send requests for discovery multiple times. While the potential for unfairness does exist under this law, the State has done as much as possible to limit possibilities for prosecutorial misconduct by passing the Michael Morton Act. Fairness lies heavily in the hands of the prosecutorial team and how they choose to proceed with their case, and this law has severely limited the chances for misconduct and unfair treatment towards the defendant.
The Michael Morton case and its tragedies brought to light the importance of honesty and transparency throughout legal proceedings. While Michael Morton himself will never gain back the 25 years of his life that he spent locked away for a crime he did not commit, he fought for a change in the criminal justice system that would prevent this same type of malfeasance from affecting another person. The Michael Morton Act aids defense attorneys and their clients by safeguarding due process and ensuring that they have all available pertinent information to go forward with their case.
Between Brady Discretion and Brady Misconduct. https://ideas.dickinsonlaw.psu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1068&context=dlr.
Man Who Served 25 Years for Murder Exonerated by DNA – History. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/man-who-served-25-years-for-murder-exonerated-by-dna.
“The Michael Morton Act: Written Statement from Attorney Cynthia Orr.” Goldstein & Orr, 13 Sept. 2018, https://www.goldsteinhilley.com/presentations-lectures/the-michael-morton-act/.
“Michael Morton.” Innocence Project, 19 Mar. 2018, https://innocenceproject.org/cases/michael-morton/.
“Texas Enacts ‘Michael Morton Act’ Intended to Reduce Wrongful Convictions.” Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/texas-enacts-michael-morton-act-intended-to-reduce-wrongful-convictions.
This paper was written by my niece, Chloe Beck.