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.

Morton among speakers at criminal defense lawyers' seminar in San Antonio

Michael Morton, whose wrongful conviction and exoneration attracted widespread attention and led to criminal justice reforms in the last Texas Legislature, will be among the keynote speakers this week at the 27th Annual Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Course in San Antonio.

Morton will speak Saturday at the event, hosted by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

Morton, who served nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder before DNA tests exonerated him, has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform since his 2011 release from prison. His case inspired the Legislature to pass the 2013 Michael Morton Act, which included new discovery rules to help ensure criminal defendants have access to evidence that could prove their innocence.

 

More than 800 criminal defense lawyers are expected to gather for the three-day seminar, which begins Thursday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Other event highlights include:

  • David Botsford of Austin, Ronald Goranson of Dallas, and Stanley Schneider of Houston will be inducted into the TCDLA Hall of Fame.
  • Uvalde criminal defense attorney Emmett Harris will be sworn in as the 44th president of the association by current TCDLA President Bobby Mims.
  • Casie Gotro of Houston and Angela J. Moore and Mark Stevens, both of San Antonio, will be honored as the Charles Butts Pro Bono Lawyers of the Year.
  • Kameron Johnson of Austin will be installed as chairman of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Education Institute.

Visit the TCDLA website for more information, or view the seminar agenda.

 

Michael Morton film, 'a great human story,' now available on DVD

By now, the basic narrative of the Michael Morton story is well known. A Texas man serves nearly 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder, only to be set free after DNA tests exonerate him. 

But to know the facts is different from feeling their emotional weight. In An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, now available on DVD, director Al Reinert takes viewers on a gut-wrenching journey through the case, from the 1986 crime scene to courtrooms and prison cells and, finally, to the moment in 2011 when Morton exited the Williamson County Courthouse a free man. Along the way, we hear from Morton what it felt like to be labeled a monster, to lose his freedom and his son, and to find no relief in the justice system for years until a team of dedicated attorneys came to his aid.

Although the story ends in punishment for the district attorney who tried Morton’s case, the focus here is not revenge. Morton’s pursuit of justice is tempered with mercy, as shown when he urges a judge to “be gentle” with Ken Anderson, the former prosecutor who 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 1987 trial. Grace, as the Austin American-Statesman noted in its review, is the film’s guiding energy.

 

An Unreal Dream premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, winning the Audience Award in the Documentary Spotlight category, and was featured on CNN in December. It is now available to stream or download on iTunes, or on DVD from Amazon and First Run Features.

DVD extras include highlights from Anderson’s court of inquiry and plea deal hearings, footage from the SXSW premiere, and an audience Q&A from the Houston Cinema Arts Festival featuring Morton, Reinert, and Houston attorney John Raley, who worked pro bono with the New York-based Innocence Project to free Morton.

“Stories are what matter in human communication,” Reinert says during the Q&A. “And this was always and continues to be a great human story.”