Travis County asks for help complying with Morton Act

Travis County Commissioners Court

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County District Attorney’s Office is requesting county funding to add eight new paralegal positions they say are needed to get the office in compliance with the Michael Morton Act. The request comes less than six months after four new paralegals were added to the office for the same reason, but the requirements of the Act have exceeded their capabilities, according to the formal request.

The Michael Morton Act took effect Jan. 1, 2014, and requires prosecutors to give evidence which could be beneficial to a defendant, also known as “Brady material,” to the defendant’s attorney. According to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the Act has dramatically impacted the amount of compliance duties, procedures and prosecutor responsibility to ensure compliance.

The formal request states the trial bureau has more than 800 cases in backlog and of the more than 2,400 cases on plea dockets in Travis County courts, zero have been processed for Morton Act compliance. The Travis County Attorney’s Office is also requesting four new paralegal positions to help with the same duties in its office, and the item was on the agenda for Travis County Commissioners to consider at their Tuesday meeting.

“We knew it would be more work, we didn’t know it would be this much work,” said Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. “Prosecutors all over the state are scrambling to comply.”

The backlog has caused the entire court system to slow down. Travis County Judge Julie Kocurek bluntly told commissioners “it is broken and something needs to be done” when talking about the impact the Act has had on the workflow and caseload in courtrooms

Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1987 for the murder of his wife Christine. After being exonerated in 2011 thanks to DNA evidence, a court of inquiry found the man who prosecuted him, Ken Anderson, withheld Brady material — which may have ultimately helped prove Morton innocent in the 1987 trial. Anderson, who was a Williamson County judge at the time of the inquiry, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and lost his law license as a result of the finding.

Despite the side effects, Lehmberg and County Attorney David Escamilla believe the law is good and serves a needed purpose. However, they hope the lawmakers who passed the Morton Act overwhelmingly in the last session step up to help fund it this time around.

“We did not know how much work this was going to be until we got into it,” said Escamilla.

The commissioners decided to spend a week researching how other counties have tackled the workload created by the Act. At next Tuesday’s meeting, they will determine whether to add the requested positions or find another why to comply with the Act requirements.

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