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Prosecutors ask for extra staff to meet regulations

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Told by the County Attorney David Escamilla and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg that Travis County’s judicial system is in a crisis, County Commissioners Tuesday approved advertising for additional paralegals to help prosecutors comply with the Michael Morton Act.

The Michael Morton Act, passed during the last legislative session, mandates that prosecutors share all evidence in all cases with defendants and document the entire process. Prosecutors say they are currently behind on sharing evidence in about two-thirds of all their cases, risking that some of those cases could be dismissed because of noncompliance.

Commissioners, however, postponed authorizing the actual number of new hires until the Planning and Budget Office can provide then with a report next week on the amount of extra positions needed to comply with the regulations. The district attorney is asking for eight additional paralegals and the county attorney wants four more in order to keep up with the increased workload. They put the price of hiring the new staff and related costs at $798,000.

The Michael Morton Act is based on a case in Williamson County, in which Morton was wrongfully convicted in 1986 of killing his wife. Morton spent 25 years in prison until his attorneys discovered that prosecutors in the case had withheld critical evidence that would have acquitted him at trial. The state released him from prison in 2011 after DNA evidence pointed to another man in the death of Morton’s wife.

Robert Smith, director of the district attorney’s trial division, said that his office is required to give copies of everything on a case to the defense counsel. He said the real work starts when they are required to have a receipt for each piece of information that they provide to defense counsel, and they must maintain a master list of files of everything turned over in the course of a case’s duration.

He said based on the work the four current paralegals in their office can perform, only a fraction of the needed work is getting done.

“They were able to produce 788 files properly under the Michael Morton Act,” Smith said. “So with receipts and the master list up to date, that projects out to 3,150 cases per year that those four paralegals can handle and the trial division handles 9,700 cases a year. So, basically, those four paralegals are able to properly comply … with about one-third of our cases.”

Smith was asked if their request could wait until the new Court convenes in January.

“Basically, in our office it’s an emergency,” he said. “As of today we are 1,023 cases backlogged where people have requested discovery and we’ve been unable to comply. So if we wait for the next court session and everything to take place, that’s another month we’ll be behind and the backlog will get bigger.”

Purchasing staff told commissioners that they had polled other large counties in Texas and had found a mixed bag. In Harris and Dallas counties, officials had hired extra staff but had also begun using a new software program called Tech Share designed to assist is processing the extra paperwork. Tarrant County officials said they had not needed to hire extra staff to handle the added work.

However, Commissioner Margaret Gómez said that ensuring people’s rights was more important than cutting corners with a computer program.

“I think that just listening to the reason that the act came into play was to protect the rights of the folks, the people who wind up in the system,” she said. “And to me that is the most important mandate that we have is making sure that what happened in Williamson County doesn’t happen here.”

Commissioner Ron Davis complained that the Michael Morton Act was yet another costly program handed down by the Legislature.

“Unfortunately it’s one of those unfunded mandates,” he said. “It means that we have to pick it up because the state apparently is not going to help in this particular regard. That was part of the issue when it came up before the budget hearing. We did what we could do to accommodate as much as we possibly could at the time. However, the backlog is just as tremendous as it was then, probably even more so.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was visibly angry over what the state had forced on them.

“This is ridiculous, what we’re being forced to do,” he said. “And especially with no funding coming down to us. It is an injustice to the taxpayers of this community for the state to send this down to us and not have any funding for it. … Especially when we didn’t think that there was going to be any fiscal impact. This is a serious fiscal impact.”

Daugherty recommended that prosecutors get together with the county’s intergovernmental relations staff and work on getting the Legislature to give counties some help in dealing with the act.

Commissioners voted 4-1, with Daugherty in dissent, to allow the prosecutors’ offices to begin advertising the paralegal positions and taking applications. Judge Sam Biscoe ordered the issue of deciding how many new staffers to hire be put on the Dec. 23 agenda.


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