Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Report: Emerging issues with the Michael Morton Act

In mid-session, the Texas Defender Service and Texas Appleseed came out with a joint report titled, "Towards More Transparent Justice: The Michael Morton Act's First Year," evaluating Texas' new criminal discovery law that took effect January 2014. But Grits couldn't focus on a lengthy, law-review style analysis at that frenzied point, so only read the document yesterday. For anyone with a professional interest in the matter, the whole thing is worth reading. On the assumption that few lay readers will take the time to do so, however, let's offer up a brief, cherry-picked summary of the highlights:

The goal of the report "was to reveal any persistent roadblocks to a defendant's access to discovery material despite the Act's passage, and to identify best practices that may ease the transition process for district and county attorney offices." The groups reviewed discovery policies from 144 DAs and 79 county attorneys and interviewed defense attorneys and public defenders in 9 cities. So they were able to perform a pretty effective, top-level overview of emerging issues with the Act's implementation.

Granting broad, early discovery to criminal defendants "reduces the risk of wrongful convictions, and promote the efficient resolution of criminal cases," opined the report authors, and though the Michael Morton Act represents perhaps the most important innocence reform Texas has implemented in the 21st century, there have been hiccups.

Improper redactions
The report criticizes excessive redaction of documents and improper withholding, in particular highlighting offices which withhold "entire records at the victim's or another witness' request." For example:
A draft of the Harris County District Attorney Office’s redaction policy,  which was not adopted but was in its final phases at the time of disclosure, directs prosecutors to notify interested third parties before disclosing certain materials because “[t]his gives them an opportunity to intervene and seek an appropriate protective order.”
Yet, the redaction requirements in Articles 39.14(c) and (e) anticipate that the prosecutors will only redact information that is not subject to disclosure — i.e., privileged information. The defense team—including counsel, investigators and any experts—is responsible for redacting additional information before showing materials to the defendant, a witness, or a prospective witness. This policy balances the defense’s right “to . . . information that [is necessary] to adequately prepare” its case with the prosecution’s duties “to protect the vulnerability of witnesses and victims who find themselves in the criminal justice system, many times, of course, through no fault of their own.” Redacting such information before disclosing materials to defense counsel short-circuits this process intended by the Act.  
Grits particularly liked this passage explaining why prosecutors shouldn't consult with victims or witnesses about discovery decisions:
inviting third party intervention—particularly that of a complainant—is inappropriate and contrary to Texas law. Complainants do “not have standing to participate as a party in a criminal proceeding or to contest the disposition of any charge.”

Any privacy interest that a complainant may have in discoverable material is protected by the Morton Act’s safeguards and cannot trump the rights of the defendant to a fair trial.  If the prosecutor possesses information relevant to a criminal proceeding that a complainant does not want disclosed, the proper inquiry is whether further prosecution is in the interest of justice; the inquiry should not be directed towards determining how that information can be.shielded from counsel for the defendant who is facing the full weight of the criminal justice system.  
The Harris County DA's office also improperly instructed prosecutors to redact offense report information "obtained by a grand jury subpoena," disingenuously conflating confidentiality of grand jury proceedings with the information presented to them to create a new category of information excluded from the defense that's not contemplated in the statute. Other potentially improper redaction policies include exclusion of medical records and lab results, criminal history reports, and bars on dissemination of discovery to defense attorneys who have previously violated the Michael Morton Act. The report says such unilateral prohibitions are subject to abuse and (somewhat lamely) suggests reporting violators to the State Bar instead of prosecutors withholding discovery.

Trouble accessing law enforcement files
Disappointingly, the section on law enforcement practices failed to focus on the issues of impeachment evidence in police personnel files or do-not-testify lists maintained by DA offices, which to me are the central, emerging issues related to law enforcement's compliance with the new statute.

Instead, they criticized a "Brady Compliance Form" used by 11 counties which "misrepresents the prosecution's duty to disclose favorable evidence to the defense and mischaracterizes the types of information that may be mitigating, impeachment or exculpatory evidence," focusing on more workaday information in police files that may not be turned over. I agree that's an issue. As Grits has described before, "some agencies have begun scanning officers' written field notes and attaching them to incident reports" to comply with the Morton Act "while others have been resistant, fearing the notes and the report may contradict." But the unaddressed questions surrounding impeachment evidence seem at least as pressing. And there are statutory hurdles to solving that problem, whereas I suspect the courts can eventually work out which parts of police investigators' files the defense bar may see under their own, present authority.

Timing of Discovery
Perhaps the most interesting portion of the report for me regarded the timing of discovery, focusong on the need for defense attorneys to have information as early in the process as possible and decrying prosecutor policies that delay discovery until later in the process or even waive it as part of a plea. Grits particularly liked their framing of this as an innocence issue:
An even playing field during the initial phases of a case also increases the accuracy of plea dispositions. Prosecutors frequently incentivize guilty pleas during the initial phases of a criminal proceeding by offering some concessions—typically a reduction in the charges in exchange for bringing the case to a swift resolution. In theory, this bargaining process is conducive to a streamlined criminal justice system.

Yet, when coupled with unequal access to information, such promises of favorable treatment substantially increase the risk that an innocent defendant will admit guilt for a crime he did not commit. Prompt access to the state’s evidence allows the defense to enter informed decisions regarding how to proceed and minimizes this “innocence problem.”
As a result of this information disparity, "Wrongful pleas are a particular concern in Texas," particularly at the misdemeanor level, where many defendants may appear pro se or accept fast-turnaround plea deals.

There's a chronic "innocence" issue that nobody ever discusses.

Illegal waivers
Addressing a topic on which this blog has commented in the past, the authors lament that "the defense's access to information continues to be used as a bargaining chip during plea negotiations and other pretrial proceedings." At least "50 jurisdictions across the state produced a form that a defendant would sign waiving at least some discovery rights," we learn in a footnote.

Some counties leave production of discovery at prosecutors' discretion, ignoring the Morton Act mandates. Others "require defense attorneys to waive objections to evidence in exchange for access to particular materials." And some "ask defense attorneys to waive the right to make certain applications to the presiding court as a condition of receiving discovery." Such "discovery contracts are not only problematic, say the authors, they also are illegal and unethical."

Grits was particularly pleased that, to demonstrate the problems with such waivers, the report used the Jonathan Salvador forensic error case as a hypothetical:
case law suggests that favorable evidence [arises] in a significant number of cases after disposition. This favorable evidence may include the discovery of new evidence, such as previously untested DNA or the confession of another person. It may also include evidence of forensic failure, such as the discovery that a lab technician perjured himself, putting all cases in which he testified in doubt, or a forensic scientist who falsified results. This latter example is taken straight from the headlines.  As discussed in the Introduction, after chemist Jonathan Salvador was found to have falsified test results in drug cases, questions were raised about convictions in thousands of cases that he had worked on throughout his tenure.

While district attorneys in several affected counties notified defense attorneys of the discovery soon thereafter, the Fort Bend County District Attorney waited almost a year to do so. Many defendants whose convictions rested upon this chemist’s fake test results languished in prison for more than a year before they were notified of this scandal. Had those defendants signed blanket waivers of the right to discovery without an exception for the production of information subject to Article 39.14(k), they might never have received word of Salvador’s falsifications. 
The report closes out with discussions of disclosure formats, discovery documentation, and costs. There's lots more detail than I've included here (the thing rounds out at 222 footnotes), so anyone interested in the topic should go to the source.

Grits thought the groups did a decent job for a first-cut analysis but suspect that unmentioned issues - particularly regarding impeachment evidence in police disciplinary files - may become more central flashpoints of contention than some of the other, albeit important subjects raised in the report. And some of these problems will diminish as appellate courts begin to rule on the Act and supply guidance. Big ships turn slowly, it would be folly to expect everything to go completely smoothly. Still, the Morton Act was a major turning point and the growing pains described in the report don't diminish its critical importance for ensuring a fair justice system and preventing false convictions.


Anonymous said...

Here, sign this.
'What is it?'
It says you have received all of the discovery you requested.
'How do I know you actually complied?'
Trust us. And we won't move on this case until you've signed this paper saying that we gave you everything.
'So if you haven't actually given me everything needed to comply with Morton and it later turns out that the info could have exonerated me, you'll hold up this waiver and say that I agreed that you complied with Morton even though you DIDN'T?'
No comment.

Anonymous said...

@12:31 Never sign the state's form. It is not required under the statute. Instead, server your discovery requests in writing and file it with the clerk with a "certificate of service" like in civil. If you add an oral request later, file a written "Defendant's First Supplemental" and so on. If your first written request listed 10 items then your supplemental resumes numbering at item 11. Then, when it is time for plea/trial, combine your standard discovery request with your supplementals to make one big list of what you requested and whether or not you received it. Of course each of these has an omnibus "plus all material, exculpatory, an impeachment" paragraph at the end. Then when it is time for plea or trial you will file YOUR VERSION of the list and tell the state where they can stick theirs. If there is anything you asked for and didn't receive you ask for a discovery hearing. The judge SHALL give you the hearing under 39.14(c). Make that "prosecutor in a robe" rule ON THE RECORD why the state doesn't have to produce. If he just says blanket no then you ask for findings of fact and conclusions of law. They will think you are an asshole. Fine. Screw them. Tables are turned muthafarker because this is how they do it in civil and guess who populates the appellate courts? Well besides CCA. Ask Patricia Cummings about legislative intent, the goal of MMA was to make crim discovery more like civil.

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting side notes to the passage of the MMA is the rush by prosecutors to demand from their Commissioner's courts new IT and case management systems in the tens of millions of dollars, justifying their multimillion dollar requests bc of the MMA.

ckaupert said...

Scott, I am PULLING my hair out trying to navigate the Comptrollers checkbook right now. What is the object code for the wrongfully convicted fund? I have searched under Comptrollers office for 'claims/settlements' and that got me nowhere----it would have been nice to know how to look up how much this fund is costing Texans to date----clearly, I think they should have just done the right thing to START with----thanks for your help.