UT Law hosts forum to discuss prosecutorial oversight

David Maly

Michael Morton, a Williamson County man who served nearly 25 years in prison despite innocence, joined a forum of speakers hosted by UT School of Law on Thursday to discuss the negative effects of prosecutorial oversight, which often goes ignored, in our state judicial system.

The event, part of a nationwide tour, brought together people involved in all aspects of the state legal system, including legal ethics professors, bar committee members, prosecutors, judges and individuals who have been victims of prosecutorial oversight themselves. These victims included Morton, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for the murder of his wife. Recent DNA tests conducted on a bandana found near Morton’s home helped clear him of the charges, and authorities are now investigating another male suspect.

During the course of the original investigation into the murder of Morton’s wife, evidence pointing to a culprit other than Morton was largely ignored, he said. This included a sighting of a green van casing the Morton’s home by neighbors prior to the murder, a discovery that Morton’s wife’s credit card had been used in a different city following her murder and the account given by Morton’s 3-year-old son, who had witnessed the murder.

These individuals shared their experiences, and the groups involved worked to prepare a report at the end of the forum with recommendations for the reform of our justice system.

In his speech, Morton explained the universality of the prosecutorial oversight issue.

“I am here because I am you,” he said, citing his relatively normal life before his conviction.

Morton explained the steps that can be taken to reform our system by each and every citizen.

“We can talk to our legislators, we can write them and we can contact the Texas State Bar,” he said. “Small things can have large consequences. Remember, you can be me, because I am you.”

Emily West, Research Director for the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization working to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, cited Texas’ recent lacking history in regards to the investigation of attorneys for prosecutorial misconduct.

“There was only one charge in the state of Texas for prosecutorial misconduct between 2004 and 2008,” she said. “Over 900 public sanctions over those five years occurred for attorneys, but only one involved prosecutorial misconduct.”

The panel’s members all agreed that this statistic was well below the actual occurrence of this misconduct.

Retired Travis County district judge Bob Perkins discussed the legal system specifically in Travis County. Perkins explained that Travis County is better then many other Texas counties in regards to the openness of records in a criminal case, an issue that plays a major role in the occurrence of prosecutorial misconduct.

“In Travis County we have not had this kind of problem, as we have an open-file law,” he said. “However, we still do have other problems.”

The main issue is the misunderstanding of what the role of district attorneys should be, Perkins said.

“It’s not all about wins and losses or how many convictions I get,” he said. “It has to be about how many {accurate} convictions I get, and until we get over that, we’ll never see the kind of justice system that we want.”