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The Texas Conference of Urban Counties (CUC) is a non-profit organization composed of 37 member counties that represent approximately 80% of the population of Texas. CUC offers its members TechShare, a program that gives counties the opportunity to collaborate on technology solutions for the administration of justice. By collaborating, members can reduce research and development cost while building solutions that they can use across county lines.
This is the second blog article in a series about software development in the United States. Read the first article to learn more about the current landscape of software development.
‘It used to take up to 3 weeks to provide in-car video to defense attorneys, but now it takes minutes to a day.’ – Midland
As a software developer with experience in corporations and startups, I’ve seen the return on software investment. I’ve witnessed automated DevOps save a company from costly, embarrassing customer-facing errors. I’ve watched as software efficiency helped a small team accomplish big wins. But it wasn’t until I founded Simpat Solutions that I truly understood the impact software can make on someone’s life. I didn’t know that until I learned about Michael Morton.
In the early morning hours in Williamson County, Texas, in August 1986, Michael Morton left his home and went to work at the grocery store he managed. Later that day, his wife, Christine, was discovered bludgeoned to death in their bed. Even though neighbors reported a suspicious van on the street near the Morton’s home and a bloody bandana was found nearby, police arrested Morton and charged him with murder. Throughout his trial, Morton maintained his innocence. His young son, who was home at the time of the murder, also told police it was not his father who had committed the crime. During his trial, his defense team asked for evidence to be handed over to them, yet unknown to them or the judge, the prosecutor withheld the bloody bandana and other evidence. In 1987, Morton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Many years later, a court eventually granted permission for DNA testing to be done on the bloody bandana found near the crime scene. The results confirmed Christine Morton’s DNA and the DNA of an unidentified male. When the male DNA was run through the CODIS databank (Combined DNA Index System), it matched Mark Norwood. In 2011, Morton was exonerated, and in 2013, Norwood was convicted of Christine Morton’s murder (along with another similar murder). Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. After his exoneration, his former prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was convicted of criminal contempt and tampering with evidence.
On March 16, 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose, regardless of whether the material is evidence to guilt or punishment. The Michael Morton Act required prosector’s to significantly improve their processes to make evidence discoverable to the defense. If the Act had been in practice in 1986, Michael Morton’s defense team could have argued the evidence of the bloody bandana and other items pointed to another assailant. With that evidence, Michael Morton might not have been wrongly convicted.
While the Michael Morton Act serves to prevent wrongful convictions and evidence coverups, the rapid growth of digital evidence made the discovery process very cumbersome and time consuming. Evidence from in-car cameras, body cameras, and phones had to be gathered, burned to discs, and physically picked up by legal teams. Add in the vastness of Texas and the size of jurisdictions for some prosecutor offices, and it was very difficult to comply with the new Michael Morton Act.
My Simpat Solutions team partnered with the Conference of Urban Counties to build a Defense portal, which is part of a larger software suite we built that includes a law enforcement portal and a prosecutor case management system. This suite of justice products enables a law enforcement office to file an incident with any appropriate digital evidence, submit the incident to the prosecutor’s office, and allow the digital evidence to become automatically or manually discoverable to the defendant’s defense attorney through the defense portal. The entire process can take minutes.
Of all the projects I’ve completed, I am most proud of this Defense software.This software allows us to give defense attorneys the same evidence as prosecutors, which can help prevent future scenarios like Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction.
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ESP Solutions Group (ESP) helps state and local education and other government agencies to design, build, and improve decision support systems. One of their services is to implement the Ed-Fi Powered Dashboards, which provides educators access to historical, timely, and predictive information on all students. Educators can use Ed-Fi Powered Dashboards to help manage academic performance and address the needs of students throughout the year.