Do you remember what you were given on the first day of work, at your first law job, by your employer?
Last night I had two newer Prosecutors from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in Fort Worth speaking to my class. They told us that they were given two things on their first day: a copy of the Texas Penal Code and a copy of Michael Morton’s book, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25 Year Journey from Prison to Peace.
For those who don’t know, Michael Morton was a Texan convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison. He served 25 years before he was exonerated. The prosecutor in the case withheld key evidence and ultimately was convicted of criminal contempt (due to withholding exculpatory evidence) and sentenced to 10 days in jail (to date the longest sentence for prosecutorial misconduct in the United States).
Michael Morton was a middle class white man with no prior criminal record before his arrest for a murder he did not commit. Among the evidence that Morton spent years fighting about was testing the DNA found at the scene. When that test was finally done it lead to another man who had already been convicted for another murder under circumstances very similar to the murder of Morton’s wife. That murder happened after Morton’s wife was murdered.
Michael Morton’s case spurred the Texas legislature to pass one of the few (and one of the best) criminal discovery laws in the country. The goal of the new law was to prevent prosecutors from withholding evidence in future cases. The Michael Morton case is, at its heart, a story of prosecutorial misconduct.
It is exactly the story that every new prosecutor in Texas (and beyond) should know so they do not repeat those mistakes. And, it made me think, what should new lawyers get on their first day of work that sums up the attitude and approach we want them to take? The Michael Morton autobiography is a great choice as it is a cautionary tail of the real people who can be hurt when prosecutors misuse their power and do not do their jobs ethically.
For prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers alike, I would also recommend Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. A theme of this book is that every person is more than the worst thing they have ever done–that even those who commit crime are not simply criminals, but are full human beings.
What would you recommend as reading for new lawyers?