Prosecutors prep for new open file law

October 12, 2013

The offices of the district and county attorneys and the county’s IT department are gearing up for a new criminal discovery law that will soon take effect.

Senate Bill 1611, referred to as the Michael Morton Act, allows for broader discovery in an effort to prevent future wrongful convictions.

District Attorney Rob Christian and County Attorney Lori Kaspar briefed the Commissioners Court at its regular meeting Tuesday about how they will comply with the required open file policy and how it will affect their offices. Also addressing the court was county IT Director Jackie Solomon.

Kaspar told the court members that she and Christian, with Solomon’s help, are “trying to get ahead of the curve” before the law goes into effect Jan. 1.

Christian said that the law will require prosecutors to provide to the court a list of “every single item that has been made available to the defense” prior to the start of a jury trial. Defense lawyers will have to acknowledge that they have received those materials, he said.

Christian told commissioners that there will be “online discovery” through NET Data, which is Texas county government software. All case documents, he said, will be “digitized and scanned and placed on a server.”

Christian and Kaspar explained to commissioners that lawyers will be able to access their clients’ files through a password, but they will not be able to access any other files. Christian said that lawyers will be required to sign a user agreement.

The district attorney stated that the online system will save his office the cost of making copies of documents for defense attorneys – something that office is already doing.

Solomon told commissioners that he has been doing preliminary testing and taking steps to ensure that sensitive information remains secure.

The Michael Morton Act is named after a man who was exonerated by DNA testing after he spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife.

DNA testing ultimately proved Morton’s innocence and pinpointed the true perpetrator. That man was taken to trial and convicted of capital murder earlier this year.

The prosecutor in that case, Ken Anderson, went on to become a district judge. In April, he was arrested and booked into jail after a court of inquiry found that he had deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence in the Morton case. In late September, Anderson stepped down from the bench.

Christian said that he has always provided case documents to defense attorneys.

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