Texas law seeking to reduce wrongful convictions will soon go into effect

People who are accused of a crime in Collin County, Texas, are entitled to a fair trial and a chance to prove their innocence. The stakes are high in any criminal trial, but a wrongful criminal conviction can have terrible consequences. Fortunately for those accused of serious crimes, a new law that goes into effect January 1, 2014, will give defendants access to information that could help prove their innocence.

Act requires prosecutors to share evidence

In May of this year, according to the Texas Tribune, Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1611, also known as the Michael Morton Act. When the law goes into effect, it will require prosecutors to share evidence with defendants. In the past, only evidence that was deemed relevant to guilt or punishment had to be released; now, all evidence must be shared.

According to the Texas Tribune, the law was named for Michael Morton, who was convicted of murder in 1987 and exonerated in 2011. Morton's team of attorneys found that prosecutors withheld evidence during the original case that might have pointed to the true killer. Since the evidence was not shared, Morton had to spend 25 years in prison, until DNA testing finally pointed to another individual, leading to Morton's exoneration.

The Texas Tribune reports that this is the first time since 1965 that Texas discovery laws will significantly change. This is important in light of how many people face imprisonment and even capital punishment in Texas.

Texas incarcerations and executions remain high

Texas is among the states with the highest incarceration rates and the highest use of the death penalty. The statistics on crime and punishment in Texas are not encouraging for people accused of a crime, especially those wrongly accused:

  • The Huffington Post reports that Texas has the third highest incarceration rate in the country.
  • In its report for the 2012 fiscal year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported 137,095 people in prison, with 44,608 received that year.
  • Texas leads the nation in capital punishment, according to The Dallas Morning News.
  • The same source reports that Virginia, the state with the next highest rate, has executed less than a quarter of the people that Texas has.
  • The 500th execution for a capital crime was carried out this year, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Texas is a large state with a significant population, so these high figures somewhat make sense, but the statistics are still alarming. By signing the Michael Morton Act, Gov. Perry hopes to bring more transparency to the Texas justice system and, ultimately, prevent more wrongful convictions.

The consequences of a criminal conviction can be steep in Texas, so people who have been accused of crimes should contact an attorney immediately to ensure that their rights are protected.