Ellis/Duncan File Comprehensive Discovery Reform Legislation
SB 1611 will enact uniform reciprocal discovery requirements, reduce wrongful convictions
(Austin, Texas)—Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) today filed comprehensive discovery reform legislation which will create a fairer, more reliable and transparent and Texas' justice system.
Ellis and Duncan filed SB 1611, which will enact uniform discovery requirements in criminal cases across Texas. Under current law, evidence sharing rules in criminal cases vary drastically from county to county, with very different rules in different jurisdictions. SB 1611 creates uniform standards to ensure sharing of vital information in the discovery phase of trial is automatic and timely, which will help reduce errors and oversights that lead to wrongful convictions.
"It's time for the law to have one set of rules in all counties and all courtrooms," said Ellis. "This reform legislation ensures that everyone is operating under the same standard, which will help us avoid some of the crucial errors that have led to too many wrongful convictions in Texas."
"In the name of fairness and justice this legislation is a step in the right direction," said Duncan. "Reasonable discovery reform is necessary to keep our criminal justice system efficient and effective. I look forward to working with Senator Ellis and stakeholders on this critical issue."
The discovery phase of a criminal trial is vital to establishing the fairness and accuracy of the outcome. Yet Texas' discovery law has remained unchanged for more than 50 years, resulting in wrongful convictions, unnecessary pretrial battles and high taxpayer costs from appeals. In fact, inadequate and improper discovery played a key role in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton. Mr. Morton spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, but evidence not turned over to the defense at trial was crucial to his release and exoneration.
"I appreciate the hard work of Senator Ellis, Senator Duncan, their staff and all of the stakeholders who have come together to work on this important legislation," said Michael Morton. "For the past year I have had one message for the Texas Legislature- transparency works. This bill is a major step forward in providing that transparency. I look forward to continuing my efforts to bring about reasonable changes to help prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else."
SB 1611 will:
Wrongful convictions erode public trust in our criminal justice system. When the wrong person goes to jail, public safety is compromised, as in the Morton case, in which the true perpetrator committed another murder while an innocent father sat in jail.
Solidify public faith in the courts. When all relevant information is not presented at trial, trust in the criminal justice system is undermined.
Save taxpayer money by reducing appeals and post-conviction litigation. When the state automatically provides relevant information to the defense, disputes over discovery issues will become less frequent in the state's higher courts. Wrongful conviction and misconduct related post-conviction litigation will be reduced.
Make criminal trials across Texas more fair by ensuring consistency. Existing practices in discovery vary greatly across the state, from "open file" policies with electronic sharing to almost no disclosure. This inconsistency is inherently unfair and should be replaced by one clear statewide standard.
Strengthen and enforce discovery obligations of prosecutors, while also providing for some mutual discovery obligations from defense attorneys. SB 1611 brings Texas' discovery obligations in line with all 49 other states and the federal system.
By reducing wrongful convictions, the automatic discovery bill would likely save Texas millions. States that have assessed taxpayer costs of wrongful conviction place it in the hundreds of millions. Although Texas lacks thorough information on the costs, studies have found the total costs of wrongful convictions for Illinois to be $214 million over the past 35 years and the costs borne by California to be $129 million since 1989.
"SB 1611 is a major step forward to prevent future cases like Michael Morton's," said Ellis. "Ensuring all evidence comes to light, and that all the relevant facts are weighed, will improve the reliability of justice system. Texans deserve a system they know will protect the innocent, convict the guilty, and is instilled with the fairness and integrity justice demands."