Disclosure in prison discoveries is now the rule in Texas, secrecy the exception

Pre-trial detection in Texas criminal matters is governed by Article 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Texan law enacted the Discovery Act in 1965. The main purpose of the rule was to enforce the strict duty of the Texas Public Prosecutor’s Office under Article 2.01 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, “not to convict, but to ensure that justice is done”.

Detection rules in criminal matters are slowly evolving

Article 39.14 was enacted in response to the 1963 US Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland This required the prosecution to disclose to a criminal accused at the request of the accused any exculpatory evidence “material” to the question of guilt or punishment.

To say that the Texas Attorney’s Office never took its Article 2.01 ethical duty seriously would be more than a classic understatement. So far there have been no ethical or constitutional restrictions BradyThe Texas Attorney’s Office tried at will in criminal cases. Due process, unquestionable guilt, or the appropriate sentence were left entirely at the discretion of the state attorney general in each of Texas’ 254 counties.

It was “law and order,” “condemned at all costs,” and “hanging on the highest oak,” a kind of law enforcement system. The mindset, inherited from traditional mantras of the violent and murderous sense of justice of the state in the Wild West, shaped many predecessors.Brady Law enforcement decisions. Thousands of innocent people have been wrongly sentenced and hundreds (if not more) executed. The chances of justice were miserable if the accused was black or brown.

Brady v. Maryland leaves “materiality” open to debate

The Brady rule was designed to stop the historic prosecution malpractice woven into the nation’s criminal justice system, especially in ancient southern states like Texas. However, Brady’s The immediate problem was that the Supreme Court did not define what “material” evidence was.

Over the next five decades, the Supreme Court, all federal appeals courts, thousands of US District Court judges, and hundreds of federal supreme and intermediate appeals courts have dealt with the recurring “Materiality“Problem.

Since the Texas Attorney’s Office did not have a clear definition of materiality, they continued wrongly convicted and To run innocent people by withholding or presenting false evidence.

Texas Court struggled with disclosure requirements

While this post-Brady Injustices arose and the Texas Court of Appeals sought to shape and shape an accurate definition of materiality through a litany of decisions. Finally in 2002 in Hampton versus Stateruled by the Court of Criminal Appeals, following the example of the US Supreme Court decision of 1976 in United States v. Agurs. Agurs took the view that failure to disclose favorable evidence does not: a per se Breach of due process when evidence of guilt or punishment was not “material”.

The Hampton The court expressly ruled that a defendant must show that “this is the case, given all the evidence quite likely that the outcome of the process would have been different if the prosecutor had made a timely disclosure. “

In other words, it was judicially acceptable to withhold favorable evidence, particularly on matters of punishment, against guilty defendants whose pretrial guilt was judged and established by none other than the prosecutor.

Wrong Conviction and Imprisonment of Michael Morton Sparks Discovery Reform

Then came the Michael Morton Act from 2013.

In February 1987, Michael Morton was convicted of the 1986 murder of his wife Christine in Williamson County, Texas. Prosecutors in the case knowingly withheld documentary and physical evidence showing that Morton was indeed innocent of the crime.

On October 12, 2011, the Texas Appeals Court officially declared Morton factually innocent charged with the crime.

With literally dozen of publicly known Michael Morton-like cases making prosecution malpractice a nuisance to the state’s criminal justice system, Texas law passed the Michael Morton Act. The law amended Article 39.14 to address the materiality issue by adding the following language to the law: Prosecutors are required to produce evidence “essential to all matters involved in the lawsuit”.

This has been the state’s rule of discovery for seven years.

However, given the human nature of fraud, the term still proved broad enough to allow individual prosecutors to play around with evidence of discovery.

On March 21, 2021 in Watkins versus StateThe Texas Court of Appeals effectively stated that the previous precedent defining the “materiality of due process” analysis was inapplicable because the legislature used the phrase “material in all matters relating to the lawsuit” in Article 39.14 .

Defense gets it right 39.14 Request for discovery

The Watkins The court dealt with a situation in which the defense attorney filed a pre-trial motion under Michael Morton’s version of Article 39.14 for disclosure of “other material matters which are not otherwise privileged and which constitute or contain evidence of a matter involved in the case” posed.

The prosecution gave defender pre-trial announcement that 33 exhibits on the criminal history of the accused were to be introduced during the punishment phase of the trial. However, the trial attorney did not disclose the actual exhibits until he presented them as evidence during the punishment phase. Due to an objection by the defense that the documents had not been disclosed in time, the court allowed the criminal history information to be admitted. An appeals court upheld the court’s decision.

At the beginning of his analysis in WatkinsWith this question the Court opened:

“The court was wrong to allow these exhibits [defendant’s] Objection?”

39.14 Requires disclosure of evidence on any matter involved in the matter

The Court added: “The answer to this question depends on whether these exhibits’ constitute or contain evidence of a matter involved in the lawsuit”. This requires the Court of Justice to interpret the term “material relating to any matter involved in the action” as it appears in Article 39.14 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “

Disclosure is the rule, secrecy is the exception

The appeals court then ruled that:

“In these circumstances, we will interpret the amended statute to adopt the usual definition of ‘material’. Evidence is “material” if it has “a logical connection with a consequential fact”. Thus, whether evidence is “material” is determined by the assessment of its relationship to a particular subject, and not by its impact on the general determination of guilt or punishment in the light of the evidence presented in the trial. In this case, the exhibits in question were “material” as they had a logical connection with facts about subsidiary punishment. We’re reversing the appeals court and referring the case back so the appeals court can analyze whether the appellant has been harmed by the lack of disclosure. “

With this general conclusion, the Court considered the difference between disclosing “material” evidence under the Michael Morton Act and disclosing under the Michael Morton Act:

“Overall, the legal changes (Michael Morton Act) expand criminal disclosure for defendants, make disclosure the rule and secrecy the exception. Significantly, Article 39.14 (h) obliges the state to have a voluntary duty to disclose to the defense all “exculpatory, accusatory, and mitigating” evidence that tends to negate guilt or reduce punishment. Our legislature has not limited the applicability of Article 39.14 (h) to “material” evidence, so that disclosure requirement is much broader than the public prosecutor’s due process disclosure requirement under Brady versus Maryland. This subsection covers the exact type of exculpatory evidence that the Michael Morton case is about, while creating an independent and ongoing duty for the prosecution to disclose evidence that may be beneficial to the defense, even if that evidence is not “material.” ” are.

“The law also requires the disclosure of evidence that tends to negate guilt or mitigate punishment. This reflects the definition of relevance to evidence. Relevant evidence is any evidence that tends to make the existence of facts relevant to determining the act more likely or less likely than would be the case without the evidence. Evidence does not, by itself, have to prove or disprove that a particular fact is relevant; It is sufficient if the evidence gives a little push to prove or disprove a consequence. Article 39.14 (h) requires the state to disclose all relevant evidence that tends to negate guilt or mitigate punishment, whether or not the evidence is “material” according to Brady v. Maryland. “

State must disclose regardless of the materiality

Indeed, a defense counsel’s pre-trial request for disclosure of Article 39.14 today imposes a positive obligation on the prosecutor to disclose all evidence regardless of the prosecutor’s findings of materiality. in the Watkins The court upheld this rule when it said, “… the legislative changes expand criminal disclosure for defendants, making disclosure the rule and secrecy the exception.”

Gone are the days of hiding the ball when it comes to criminal discovery in Texas. The Texas Attorney’s Office would be wise to read this Watkins decision and remind yourself of your ethical and legal duty “not to judge but to see that justice is done”.

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