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Michael Morton: DNA testing law needs tweaking

Morton and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) say recent court cases highlight need to clarify law.

AUSTIN -- After 25 years in prison, the battle Michael Morton began in the big house continues in the state house.

"It's been about three and a half years now since I've been out," Morton recalled Monday morning at the Texas Capitol. The state's most high-profile exoneree joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) for a media conference concerning the use of DNA evidence to prove guilt or innocence.

Wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder in 1987, Morton was released in 2011 after DNA evidence proved he was not involved. The actual murderer, which the DNA evidence indicated was Mark Alan Norwood, stands accused of killing another woman while Morton was behind bars.

According to the Innocence Project, 160 DNA exoneration cases nationwide since 1989 resulted in the real perpetrators being identified, but not before those perpetrators committed 145 additional crimes, including 77 rapes and 34 murders. Morton is one of 52 Texans exonerated by DNA evidence during the same period.

"I think of those 77 women that may not have been raped if they'd got the right guy, or those 34 people who may not have been murdered if they got the right guy," Morton told KVUE Monday.

Morton was joined at Monday's conference by exoneree Billy Smith, who was released in 2006 after serving 19 years of a life sentence. In Smith's case, DNA evidence from a rape kit proved he was wrongly convicted. It was not the first time Smith had requested a test.

"I wasn't bitter. I got past that point," said Smith. "Twenty years takes a lot of anger out of you when you're trying to survive, to make sure that you live to see another day. But it was very frustrating not knowing."

"For years people always said, 'Well you must have done something, you're in prison,'" said Smith, who points to the number of exoneration cases in Texas as clear evidence that not everyone in prison is guilty. The beautiful thing about DNA, he says, is it can prove guilt as well as innocence.

The Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to share potentially exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys, cleared the Texas Legislature in 2013 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Ellis, the bill's author, has led efforts to make DNA evidence more readily available both before and after the trial.

Yet advocates say lingering issues remain. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals remanded a request for DNA testing by death row inmate Larry Swearingen back to the lower court in 2014, a situation which Morton says revealed a paradoxical "catch 22" in the court's interpretation of the current law.

"You have to have proof of the biological evidence before they're going to allow you to test the biological evidence," explained Morton. "You can't prove what you don't have."

Ellis says Senate Bill 487 would clarify the law to allow DNA testing of evidence with a "reasonable likelihood" of containing biological material. As laws such as the Michael Morton Act expand the legal toolkit for those trying to prove their innocence, Smith says his faith in the legal system is improving.

"I know now that there is something in place that can work. See before DNA, there wasn't anything but he-said-she-said," said Smith. "It seems like every session something else is there on the forefront to make it better."

"We think that this bill strikes the right balance between allowing judges to test evidence in cases where there's really a likelihood that the DNA could come from the person who committed the crime, but not just automatically doing it in every case, which would be inefficient and expensive," said Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project.

"You have people there that are actually innocent just waiting to get out, and so that's my mission, is to get out and help someone that I left behind," said Smith. Morton says the feeling is not unique among exonerees.

"The exonerees almost to a man have this sense of obligation," said Morton. "I'm doing this not so much for me, but for you, because honestly if it could happen to me, there's no reason why it couldn't happen to you."