Well-meaning law could keep killers free longer

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Rodney Ellis has spent a lot of his 24 years in the Texas Senate fighting to protect the innocent and hold the guilty accountable.

Incredulous, he asks, “Who in their right mind would want the wrong person to go to jail?”

“You know the real tragedy when the wrong person is convicted? The real tragedy in my judgment is that the person who committed the crime gets away and they are empowered to commit more crimes,” Ellis said. “Look at the Michael Morton case.”

Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 1987, he was convicted of killing his wife, Christine, who was beaten to death in their home, and sentenced to life in prison. It took almost a quarter century to prove prosecutors hid evidence that could have cast doubt on Morton’s guilt. Later, another prosecutor refused to test a piece of evidence that turned out to be the smoking gun in the case against the real killer, Mark Norwood, a man police say went on to kill another woman after Morton’s conviction.

The case is Ellis’ nightmare scenario. In response to what happened to Michael Morton, he authored Senate Bill 1292, which became law and went into effect in September 2013. The law requires all “relevant” biological evidence be tested in a capital murder case before the case goes to trial.

“Who in their right mind would want the wrong person to go to jail?”— Rodney Ellis

Morton’s was not a capital case, but the years of fights over DNA testing and the cost of fighting that testing is something Ellis wants to avoid in the future.

“That case is a perfect example if you think about the millions of dollars that ended up being spent to try and discover the truth in that case,” Ellis said. “If we’d had a requirement in the beginning that all of the relevant items that had DNA would get tested, we could have avoided that.”

But the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab is finding it difficult to keep up with the amount of testing now required by law.

“It has resulted in a significant increase in workload (number of samples analyzed),” said DPS Spokesperson Tom Vinger. “Previously, capital cases required testing of approximately 10 or fewer DNA samples. Since this new law has been enacted, the number of DNA samples required to be tested has increased substantially.”

Vinger says the department is working to minimize the impact of the additional DNA testing and has implemented internal procedures to process the evidence from capital cases as quickly as possible.

“Based on these outcomes, the Department will be seeking additional funding related to SB 1292 during the upcoming legislative session,” Vinger explained.

Michael Morton: Getting Life

Michael Morton’s life among the trees on an East Texas lake is a little slice of Heaven now, but his new memoir, ‘Getting Life,’ details a 25-year Hell in heartbreaking detail.

“I think I wrote it for a couple of reasons, one to show people what I went through,” Morton said. “And also, it’s kind of I can like hand it to my son and it’s like “you were in this, but you didn’t know it.”

Morton’s son, Eric, was only three years old when his mother was killed and his father wrongfully convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Eventually, his mother’s sister adopted Eric, who decided as a teenager, he no longer wanted a relationship with his father, a moment Morton details in his new memoir. Continue Reading

Legislators did not appropriate any additional funding when they passed the new law.

“If it’s creating a backlog you need to build more crime labs,” said Ellis. “The real question is whether you want to spend more money on the front end to get the right person, maybe avoid having the person who did it from walking away free and getting the wrong person convicted and then you spend more money on the back end when you’re trying to put all of those shattered lives in order and that person is out committing other crimes.”

The man who killed Michael Morton’s wife will spend the rest of his life in prison, although he is appealing his conviction. Mark Norwood is also awaiting trial for the murder of Debra Masters Baker in January 1988. DNA also tied him to that crime scene.

Morton is supportive of the new law, but also realistic.

“Testing every single thing– there’s a point of absurdity there because there’s a diminishing return at some point,” Morton said.

“So at least this way you’re saying– at least the defense should know about every piece of evidence and have the opportunity to test it,” asked KXAN Investigator Shannon Wolfson.

“Or at least in the final analysis the jury will– they’ll be aware of it and they’ll play that into the equation of reasonable doubt,” Morton replied.

Today, Morton’s life among the trees on an East Texas lake is a little slice of Heaven.

“Life is good now,” he says with his new wife, Cynthia, watching nearby.

But his new memoir, “Getting Life,” details his 25 year Hell in heartbreaking detail.

“This has been a really big deal and in your day to day life you kind of, for survival or well-being, you just, you don’t harp on it and every time it comes back up, you remember in a very powerful way that oh, yeah– that was a big deal,” Morton said.

Ellis wants to be sure nothing like what happened to Morton happens to anyone else in Texas.

“We want to make sure, when you’re given the ultimate penalty, that you do as much as is humanely possible to get it right. And let me tell you– I’m just not sure that we’ve gotten it right all the time.”

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