There’s a case name Texas criminal lawyers should memorize because we’ll probably be citing it for decades: Watkins.
“Your honor, I object. This is a Watkins violation.” “Objection, your honor. Watkins.”
Watkins involved the admission of 33 of 34 state exhibits during the sentencing phase of a drug trial. The exhibits were a collection of booking records, pen packets, and judgments of prior convictions. The state offered them for purposes of enhancement (making Watkins subject to a 25‑year minimum) and proving extraneous offenses.
Before trial and in accordance with Tex. Code Crim. Pro. Art. 39.14 (a.k.a. the Michael Morton Act), defense attorney and TCDLA member Michael J. Crawford sent a timely written request to the prosecutor for “any other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any other matter involved in the case.” The prosecutor provided notice of the State’s intent to introduce evidence of these prior convictions and extraneous offenses at sentencing. However, the prosecutor did not disclose copies of the exhibits themselves until it was time to introduce them. The defense attorney objected to the admission of the exhibits, citing Article 39.14.
In Ralph DeWayne Watkins v. The State of Texas, No. PD‑1015‑18 (Tex. Crim. App. March 3, 2021), the Court of Criminal Appeals held, in a 7‑2 opinion, it was error for the trial court to admit the state’s exhibits.
The gist of the CCA’s 55‑page slip opinion is that “material to any matter involved in the action” — a phrase contained in both the original text and the current version of Article 39.14 — includes the sentencing phase of a trial. “Material” simply means having “some logical connection to a consequential fact.” Watkins, slip op. at 3. In this case, the exhibits at issue were material because they had “a logical connection to subsidiary punishment facts.” Id.1
Worth noting (and it should prove instructive to all Texas prosecutors), the state, in this case, provided the defense with neither copies of the exhibits nor access to them in advance of trial. The prosecutor apparently “did not believe Article
39.14 applied to punishment …” Watkins, slip op. at 5. In disabusing the prosecutor of his mistaken belief, the CCA left open the door to full discovery of independent accusations (i.e., subsidiary punishment facts) which form the basis of prior convictions or alleged extraneous conduct.
Does your client have a prior DWI conviction or arrest the state intends to offer in its case‑in‑chief or during sentencing? Don’t just request copies of convictions, judgments, and sentences. Ask for offense reports, DIC forms, videos, chemical test results (and all of the underlying data) that were evidence in the prior case. Robbery conviction, arrest, or allegation? Get all the standard evidence, plus that unfairly suggestive photo spread that led to your client’s unjust conviction or arrest. Underlying evidence in virtually every type of prior conviction, arrest, or alleged extraneous conduct should now be fully discoverable. A prosecutor who elects not to search for and produce requested material in advance of trial does so at his or her peril. Keep in mind that even if a prosecutor claims he or she doesn’t plan to use certain evidence at trial, you might. Criminal defendants now have a recognized “general statutory right to discovery in Texas beyond the guarantees of due process.” Watkins, slip op. at 52 (emphasis added).
TCDLA member, Jason Edward Niehaus, handled Watkins’s appeal to the CCA. He briefed and successfully argued the case. TCDLA Amicus Committee member Lane Hagood wrote TCDLA’s amicus brief – specifically mentioned in the CCA’s opinion ‑‑ and participated in oral argument as well. (A slew of other TCDLA members pitched in at the intermediate level.) Finally, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice David Newell and staff should be congratulated for authoring an extremely thorough and impeccably reasoned opinion.
The criminal discovery playing field is now a little more level in Texas, and that is something for citizens and practitioners alike to celebrate. Remember the case name–Watkins!