In 1987, a Texas man named Michael Morton was found guilty of murdering his wife and sent to prison. About 25 years later, in 2011, new DNA evidence was uncovered that exonerated Morton, and he was set free. Two years later, the actual murderer, Mark Alan Norwood, was caught. This story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t stop there.
While fighting for Morton’s release, Morton’s legal team uncovered evidence that the original prosecutor, Ken Anderson, had withheld evidence. This evidence may have kept Michael Morton out of prison. There were indications that the crime had been committed by another man. Eyewitness testimony was also withheld. Morton’s son, who was three at the time of the murder, said that Morton was not home the night his wife was killed. None of this evidence made its way into the courtroom.
A new case was brought to the court of appeal. Prosecutor Anderson was found guilty of contempt of court. He was given a light sentence, but he was also barred from practicing law for at least five years.
As a result of Morton’s harrowing experience, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Bill 1611, the Michael Morton Act. According to this law, prosecution has an obligation to present all evidence to the defense, allowing the defense to build their case. In March of 2021, this act was put to the test. A defendant was given a harsh sentence based on evidence that was suddenly presented during sentencing.
Watkins v. State
When the sentencing of Ralph Watkins began in March of 2021, prosecution suddenly presented evidence that suggested Watkins had been a serial felony offender. Based on this evidence, a simple “possession with intent to deliver” charge was penalized with 70 years in prison.
Appealing the sentencing, Watkins’s lawyers argued that this evidence should have been presented to them. The law states that any items “material to any matter involved in the case” should be presented by the prosecution. The prosecution’s stance was that this evidence was not relevant to the specific charges of this case, only for the sentencing. The defense’s stance was that this evidence was clearly “material” to the case, and they should have been given the opportunity to see it and prepare a defense.
The court of appeals sided with the defense, saying prosecutors should have disclosed anything that could have affected the outcome of the case, sentencing included. It concluded that all evidence that has “some logical connection to a consequential fact” should be considered “material.” The defense did not have to make a case for why they wanted the evidence; it should have just been made available to them. Prosecutors should not consider the outcome of a case when disclosing evidence. They should just do so, whether it hurts or helps their argument.
Zendeh Del & Associates, PLLC will be watching prosecutors closely, making sure they disclose evidence as necessary. If you need help appealing a sentence, reach out today for a free consultation. We can be reached online or at (409) 204-5566.