Ahead of Norwood’s 2nd trial, the Morton Act still impacts prosecutors

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Michael Morton Act took effect Jan. 1, 2014, after Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1987 for the murder of his wife, Christine.

After being exonerated in 2011 thanks to DNA evidence, a court of inquiry found the man who prosecuted him, Ken Anderson, withheld Brady material — which may have ultimately helped prove Morton innocent in the 1987 trial. Anderson, who was a Williamson County judge at the time of the inquiry, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and lost his law license as a result of the finding.

Morton was exonerated in 2011 after spending 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The law, named after Morton, passed the Texas Legislature in 2013. It is the discovery statute in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

“It provides that the prosecution is required to make copies of all the evidence that is generated as a result of a criminal investigation where charges have been filed against an individual, and give that to the attorney representing the defendant,” explained Buddy Meyer, the director of the trial bureau of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

“It is very, very labor intensive,” Meyer continued.

The law requires prosecutors in Texas to give evidence which could be beneficial to a defendant to the defendant’s attorney, by physical reproduction. According to the Travis Co. District Attorney’s Office, the Act has dramatically impacted the amount of compliance duties, procedures and prosecutor responsibility to ensure compliance.

That’s why in the months following its implementation, county prosecutors asked the commission for additional personnel to handle the discovery process mandated in the law.

“We knew it would be more work, we didn’t know it would be this much work,” Travis Co. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg told KXAN in December 2014. “Prosecutors all over the state are scrambling to comply.”

To date, there are nine paralegals who compile and document evidence in order to abide by the Michael Morton Act. Even after nearly three years since the law went into effect, Travis Co. prosecutors are still adjusting to the added workload the law mandates.

“Right now, we’re barely keeping up,” said Buddy Meyer. “But, it’s working okay in terms of meeting our obligations under the statute.”

Buddy Meyer says that is the case because, after the initial discovery process in any case, the assistant district attorney must take over evidence.

“We don’t receive all of the evidence from the law enforcement agency at one time,” added Meyer. “The ideal situation would be to where the paralegals could continue to give ongoing discovery, as opposed to the assistant district attorneys having to do that.”

The number of pending discovery requests for Travis County’s Trial Court Division, as of June 30, 2016, were approximately 1,200 cases/requests. The annual caseload in the county is approximately 10,000 cases.

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