Advocates urge Texas to again expand DNA testing

Barry Scheck, Michael Morton & Sen. Rodney Ellis urge the Texas Legislature to fix DNA testing law. (Thomas Costley/KXAN)

AUSTIN (AP) — Advocacy groups and a high-profile Texan who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit urged the Legislature on Wednesday to again expand access to crime-scene DNA testing.

Michael Morton was exonerated for his wife’s slaying by DNA testing in 2011. He joined attorneys and organizations including the New York-based Innocence Project, as well as Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis at the state Capitol, calling for “minor fixes” to strengthen laws already in place.

The move comes after an appeals court ruling in a separate death row case that they say weakened existing laws.

Texas in 2011 passed a bipartisan measure allowing DNA testing on most crime-scene evidence. But a February decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied further testing in the case of death row inmate Larry Swearingen.

Swearingen was convicted in 2000 of killing 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, a Montgomery County community college student. He says he’s innocent, and his lawyers wanted DNA testing on pantyhose used to strangle Trotter.

But the state’s highest criminal court found that additional testing couldn’t be granted because the existence of biological material on the pantyhose hadn’t been proven — even though some material such as skin cells are microscopic and often can’t be found without advanced forensics testing.

“A Catch-22’s been set up. By this decision, you won’t be able to test any DNA material from your crime scene unless you already know what it is,” Morton said at a news conference. “That’s an impossible bar for anybody to meet.”

The Legislature doesn’t convene again until January. Ellis said he and others were still drafting a new law undoing the appeals courts “watering down” of the 2011 measure, but added that small changes would likely be enough to ensure future court decisions err on the side of expanding rather than limiting DNA testing in Texas criminal cases.

Morton said that if the current ruling had been in effect while he was still in prison, his conviction may not have been overturned. He was freed after testing on a bandanna near his home showed his wife’s blood but also DNA from another man, who turned out to be her actual killer.

But Morton’s case isn’t a perfect example since the blood on the bandanna made it clear there was genetic material that could be tested — even though it was skin cells and sweat, not the visible blood, that ultimately exonerated him.

Still, Morton has pushed the Legislature into action before. Last year, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a law mandating that prosecutors share case files with defense attorneys, after Morton’s legal team was denied access to potentially helpful evidence during his original trial.

“I’m confident that the Legislature will address this,” Morton said, “and that our lawmakers from both sides of the aisle will do the right thing.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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