State Bar of Texas Blog

Morton urges cooperation to preserve new Texas discovery law

Michael Morton—subject of magazine profiles, focus of an acclaimed documentary, author of an upcoming memoir—is by many measures a celebrity.

It’s a label he doesn’t relish, especially in light of the reason so many people know his name, Morton recently told an audience of San Antonio defense lawyers.

Morton, an Austin grocery store manager, was wrongfully convicted of his wife’s 1986 murder and served nearly 25 years in prison before DNA tests exonerated him. His former prosecutor served five days in jail and surrendered his law license after pleading guilty in November to criminal contempt for withholding exculpatory evidence during Morton’s trial.

“I don’t have any need to be known; I hope I’m not that insecure,” Morton told members of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on June 15 at the 27th Annual Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Course. “But I did all those [media appearances] and I participated in what a lot of people wanted me to do because I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to you.”

The title of Morton’s presentation, “The Work Is Not Done,” made it clear he intends to continue using the platform his circumstances provided. He sucessfully pushed the Texas Legislature to pass the 2013 Michael Morton Act, which included new discovery rules to help ensure criminal defendants have access to evidence that could establish their innocence. Morton is now working to preserve the law after some prosecutors complained its requirements are driving up costs for things like copying and delivering documents. Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the Texas Tribune last month that he’d heard from several counties that “documentation has been a strain.” 

Morton urged defense attorneys to work with prosecutors and avoid succumbing to an “us versus them” mentality on the issue.

“I ask everybody here not to fall into that trap, because we can get people we profoundly disagree with on a lot of other stuff to agree on this,” he said. “Your individual rights are vital.”

Other highlights:

  • Houston-based criminal appellate and post-conviction attorney Brian Wice presented an ethics seminar titled “Keeping the House Honest—Preserving Error.” Wice, best-known for his work in high-profile cases such as Susan Wright, Jim Bakker, and Tom DeLay, talked about leveling the playing field inside the courtroom and identified three building blocks to success: 1) specificity—isolate what is wrong and make it clear; 2) timeliness—know when to object at the first opportunity; and 3) obtaining the ruling—press the judge. He stressed the importance of knowing exactly what to do and when. In the courtroom “things happen in real time in the blink of an eye.”
  • In another ethics presentation, Dallas solo practitioner Audrey Moorehead said lawyers should remember that the law is about relationships, and that means being polite. “Habitual courtesy will deliver untold rewards,” she said. Attorneys should also pick clients carefully and shouldn’t be afraid to end an attorney-client relationship if a legitimate need or conflict of interest arises, according to Moorehead. In the end, it’s about not letting emotions override wisdom, she said.

Patricia Busa McConnico contributed to this post. Photo of Michael Morton by Nitu Gill courtesy of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

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