Just two years ago, Michael Morton was still in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—the murder of his wife. He was finally exonerated in December 2011 after serving 25 years and has since worked tirelessly to ensure that others don’t suffer similar injustice.
Thursday afternoon, Gov. Perry ceremonially signed the Michael Morton Act—SB 1611—which was authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). “Michael’s story played a very central role in making sure that we’re here today. It was his vocal efforts and other Texans’ work to make sure that citizens of this state would never have to face an ordeal that he had to face,” said Perry during the bill signing.
The measure is intended to improve Texas’ criminal justice system by ensuring that defense attorneys have access to all relevant evidence. One of the reasons Morton was wrongly convicted is that prosecutors withheld key pieces of evidence from his attorneys.
Morton was wearing a navy jacket, blue jeans, cowboy boots and a big smile. His wife Cynthia May Chessman stood behind him. At their wedding in March, they asked the 200 guests to donate to the Innocence Project, the organization that helped prove Morton’s innocence through DNA testing.
Perry said he is proud of Texas for being a “tough on crime” state. “But that tradition, however, comes with a very powerful responsibility: to make sure our judicial process is transparent and it’s as open as humanly possible,” he said. “Senate Bill 1611 helped serve that case, making our system more fair, helping prevent wrongful convictions, and, for that matter, any penalties that are harsher than what is warranted by the facts.”
“This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” Perry said.
Sen. Ellis called the bill’s passage a bipartisan effort. “The road to justice is not something you can do in a millisecond. It’s generally not a jet plane ride. It’s a journey. And this bill is an important step on that journey,” he said.
When asked if he supports the creation of an “innocence” or “exoneration” commission, Perry evaded the question. “I’m always open to the concept: how do we make Texas a better place to live? Whether that’s through transparency, whether it’s about statutes that are already on the book that need some tweaking and we don’t have to meet all the time, as Texas has shown to be efficient. So, the process, I think, works well for us.”
The current exoneration bill HB 166 has passed the House, but Ellis was reluctant to say that it would achieve final passage this session. “I, I never give up. It’s been around for over a decade. You know, you never say never. I’d say it’s on life support, but this Michael Morton Act had to be resuscitated a number of times as well.”
HB 166 would establish the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to investigate allegations of wrongful conviction. (Tim Cole was the first man in Texas to be posthumously exonerated. He died in prison before his innocence was proven.)
Since Texas has the highest number of wrongful convictions (117 exonerations and counting), an innocence commission seems like a good idea.
But on this day at least, Texas took another step toward reforming its criminal justice system.