As New York debates discovery reform, the Lone Star State’s experience might serve as a model of a modern, progressive approach to the issue. Having served as special victims unit prosecutors in Texas, it is our strong belief that open and transparent discovery is in the interest of the entire criminal justice community, from the prosecutors and police to the accused.
The Texas legislature passed “open discovery” legislation in 2014 after a prosecutor’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence sent an innocent man to prison for 25 years. The actual perpetrator, who remained free, committed a second murder in that time.
Texas prosecutors are now required to maintain an “open file.” This means we are required to disclose as soon as practicable the entire contents of our file—including items like police reports, witness names, DNA evidence and surveillance footage. We provide every criminally accused person in Texas with this information, enabling defendants and their attorneys to make informed decisions about whether to plead guilty or prepare for a trial.
This discovery reform brings speedier dispositions of cases and earlier closure for victims. Faster resolution also means a lower cost for our taxpayers.
Law enforcement and victims’ groups were concerned that the reforms would force the early release of victims’ and witnesses’ names and addresses, exposing them to intimidation or harm. We are particularly sensitive to this issue, as special victims unit prosecutors who prosecuted many crimes committed by family members. Fortunately, since our legislators included sensible witness safety provisions, after five years of reform, there hasn’t been any increased security concern for witnesses or victims.
Prior to discovery reform, Texas prosecutors were also saddled with the “gatekeeping” responsibility of deciding what evidence should be turned over to the accused. The reform has relieved us of the ethical dilemma of determining what to turn over to the defense.
Every day, open discovery helps restore Texans’ faith in our criminal justice system. We are proud that Texas prosecutors, regardless of party affiliation, have embraced this reform as the foundation of equal justice and authentic due process.
Texas has learned a better way to avoid wrongful prosecutions and wrongful convictions. We hope that New York can learn from our experience.
Julia Rubio is an assistant district attorney in Webb County, Texas and Linda Garza is a former lead prosecutor for the Webb County Special Victims Unit.