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District Attorney tells Commissioners new law adding to workload

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg asked the Travis County Commissioner’s Court Tuesday for extra funding to help manage attorney workloads under the state’s new Michael Morton Act.

 

The act, passed by the Texas Legislature during the 2013 session, requires all Texas prosecutors to widen their scope of obtaining evidence pertaining to a criminal case. Prosecutors must release all information to defense attorneys that could prove a defendant’s innocence. Michael Morton spent almost 25 years wrongfully imprisoned, convicted of murdering his wife, because the Williamson County prosecutor intentionally withheld evidence at the time of his trial.

 

Ken Anderson, the District Attorney who prosecuted Morton, failed to disclose two pieces of evidence to Morton’s attorneys that likely would have led to an acquittal rather than a conviction. Last year, Anderson was sentenced to 10 days in jail and was stripped of his law license for allegedly hiding the exculpatory evidence.

 

The legislature’s fiscal note accompanying an early draft of the act said there was no significant fiscal implication to the state. However, Lehmberg said at the meeting Tuesday that despite the fact that the Legislative Budget Board gathered information on potential costs to prosecuting attorneys, there was still no way of knowing that the workload would incur extra hours and the need for additional staff throughout the state.

 

“We have frankly been surprised at the impact that this has had on us,” Lehmberg said.

 

Lehmberg said the district attorney’s office handles about 12,000 felonies each year, and every felony requires a considerable amount of resources to investigate and gather evidence. Her office now has to seek out, duplicate and provide every tangible piece of evidence regarding felony cases to defense lawyers.

 

Lehmberg said the workload for each case under the new law will be considerably longer, and she needs more employees. The district attorney’s office asked for $88,628.00 from the county to fund four more staff to help manage the caseloads until the end of the fiscal year. They anticipate needing eight more staff for the 2015 fiscal year.

 

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was opposed to the idea.

 

“I know that everybody would like to have the speediest trial… but there’s a limit on what we can do,” Daugherty said. “I very seldom have anybody call my office and say ‘You know I’m really upset because you can’t get things through this system.’”

 

Daugherty suggested auditing each county department for efficiency to minimize extra funding, but still produce timely results.

 

County Judge Sam Biscoe said the court should call to the legislature’s attention that the zero fiscal note is way off target, and “enlighten” them on the exact dollar amounts needed for the county, but that the added funding needs more discussion.

 

“I don’t have anything against the act itself, but I have a problem with who’s paying for it,” Biscoe said. “I’m bold enough to ask for a reimbursement of 100 percent.”

 

The court voted 3-2 to allow the District Attorney’s office to post four job positions and for the County Attorney’s Office to post job listings for four more also. (This section has been corrected.) Daugherty and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez voted no.

 

The Texas Tribune reported at the end of May that Travis County District Attorney’s office is not alone in experiencing problems managing caseloads under the act. It cited Dallas and Harris counties among those with a heavier workload.

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