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The Heath Case: A Landmark Ruling in Discovery Obligations for Texas Prosecutors

We have for years argued for broader discovery obligations from the prosecution. The recent ruling in the case of State of Texas v. Dwayne Robert Heath by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is a watershed moment in this ongoing battle. This decision redefines the responsibilities of the state in criminal proceedings and marks a significant shift towards ensuring fairness and transparency in the judicial process.

Background of the Heath Case

In 2016, Dwayne Robert Heath was indicted for injury to a child. His trial faced multiple delays, and it was not until six days before the fourth trial setting in May 2018 that the prosecutor disclosed the existence of a 911 call made by the complainant’s mother on the date of the alleged offense. This evidence was critical and had been in the possession of law enforcement since 2016. Heath's defense counsel promptly moved to suppress the 911 call, arguing a violation of the Michael Morton Act (Article 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure), which mandates timely disclosure of evidence by the state.

The trial court agreed with Heath's defense, excluding the 911 call from evidence due to the state's failure to disclose it in a timely manner. The State appealed, leading to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ examination of whether the term “the state” in Article 39.14 includes law enforcement agencies and whether evidence must be disclosed “as soon as practicable” regardless of the prosecution's knowledge of its existence.

Key Findings and Implications

1. "The State" Includes Law Enforcement Agencies

The Court held that the term “the state” in Article 39.14 encompasses both prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. This interpretation aligns with the intent of the Michael Morton Act to prevent wrongful convictions by ensuring comprehensive and timely evidence disclosure. This ruling clarifies that prosecutors must account for all evidence in the possession of law enforcement agencies, not just what is directly within the prosecutor's office.

2. "As Soon as Practicable" Means Without Delay

The phrase “as soon as practicable” does not imply a knowledge requirement on the part of the prosecution. Instead, it demands that evidence be disclosed as soon as it is reasonably possible, regardless of when the prosecutor becomes aware of it. This interpretation places a proactive duty on prosecutors to diligently inquire and ensure all discoverable evidence is obtained and shared promptly.

3. Authority to Exclude Untimely Disclosed Evidence

The Court affirmed that trial courts have the authority to exclude evidence not disclosed in accordance with Article 39.14, even absent a showing of bad faith by the prosecution. This decision underscores the judiciary's role in enforcing discovery obligations and ensuring defendants' rights are protected against procedural oversights.

A Message to Prosecutors: Take Note and Adapt

For years, attorneys at Zendeh Del & Associates, PLLC have argued that the state’s discovery obligations should be more inclusive and timely. The ruling in the Heath case validates these arguments and sets a new standard that prosecutors must heed.

Proactive Evidence Management

Prosecutors must now adopt a more proactive approach in managing evidence. This involves regular and thorough communication with law enforcement agencies to ensure all relevant materials are identified and disclosed. Prosecutors can no longer rely on outdated practices where they wait passively for evidence to be handed over. Instead, they must actively seek out all pertinent information, regardless of its source within the state’s various agencies. Failure to do so will not only undermine the integrity of the legal process but can also lead to significant legal consequences.

Training and Procedures

Implementing robust training programs for prosecutors and law enforcement officers on the new discovery obligations is crucial. These programs should emphasize the importance of timely and comprehensive evidence disclosure. Understanding the scope and immediacy of these duties will help prevent inadvertent non-disclosure of critical evidence. Developing standardized procedures for evidence collection and disclosure will facilitate compliance with Article 39.14. Prosecutors must ensure that every member of their team, as well as associated law enforcement agencies, are fully aware of and adhere to these new standards.

Technological Solutions

Leveraging technology to track and manage evidence can significantly enhance the efficiency of the disclosure process. Digital evidence management systems that provide real-time updates and alerts can help prosecutors stay informed about the status of evidence and ensure timely disclosure. Implementing these systems is not just a best practice—it is a necessity to comply with the court’s mandate. Prosecutors who fail to utilize available technology to manage evidence risk serious repercussions, including the exclusion of crucial evidence and potential sanctions.

Ethical and Legal Accountability

Beyond legal obligations, prosecutors must embrace the ethical imperatives of transparency and fairness. The Heath ruling serves as a stark reminder that the justice system's integrity relies on the equitable treatment of all parties. Upholding these principles not only fulfills legal duties but also fosters public trust in the criminal justice system.

Failure to comply with the broadened discovery obligations can result in severe consequences. Prosecutors may face professional disciplinary actions, including reprimands, suspensions, or even disbarment for willfully or negligently withholding evidence. Moreover, cases may be jeopardized, with critical evidence excluded and verdicts overturned on appeal. Prosecutors must understand that their duties extend beyond mere compliance; they are essential to upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice is served.

Severe Consequences of Non-Compliance

Prosecutors must recognize that non-compliance with these enhanced discovery obligations will not be tolerated. Courts are now empowered to impose stringent sanctions for failures in disclosure, even in the absence of bad faith. This includes the exclusion of vital evidence that could otherwise be pivotal in securing a conviction. Additionally, such failures could lead to wrongful convictions being overturned, miscarriages of justice, and significant reputational damage to the prosecutorial office involved. The stakes are high, and adherence to these new standards is non-negotiable.


The Heath ruling is a pivotal development in Texas criminal law, reinforcing the state's obligation to ensure timely and comprehensive evidence disclosure. As defense attorneys, we have long advocated for such changes, and this decision represents a significant victory for justice and fairness. Prosecutors must take note of this ruling and adapt their practices to comply with the heightened standards set forth by the Court. Failure to do so not only risks sanctions and the exclusion of critical evidence but also undermines the fundamental principles of our legal system.

This landmark case is a call to action for all legal practitioners to uphold the highest standards of evidence management and disclosure, ensuring that justice is served for all parties involved.

At Zendeh Del & Associates, PLLC, we are committed to staying at the forefront of legal developments to provide our clients with the best possible defense. Our experienced team of criminal defense attorneys understands the intricacies of the law and leverages every available resource to protect our clients' rights. Mr. Zendeh Del even teaches criminal procedure in law school.

If you are facing charges, our firm is prepared to fight tirelessly on your behalf.

With a reputation for excellence and a proven track record, Zendeh Del & Associates, PLLC is the largest criminal defense firm in Galveston. Our dedication to justice, combined with our comprehensive understanding of the law, makes us the go-to firm for those seeking a robust defense. If you or a loved one is in need of legal representation, do not hesitate to contact us. We are available 24/7 to provide the support and guidance you need during these challenging times.

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For expert legal representation, call Zendeh Del & Associates, PLLC at (409) 740-1111. Let us put our knowledge, experience, and dedication to work for you.