Know What to Do if You Are Convicted with Bad Evidence or Junk Science

Defense

Know What to Do if You Are Convicted with Bad Evidence or Junk Science

If you have been convicted of a crime in the State of Texas that is based on bad evidence, such as a witness who either lied or was mistaken on the matter or as a result of junk science, the time to act is now. Texas took this matter seriously and was the first state in the nation to establish a Forensic Science Commission, which is set up to carefully examine those cases in which legal errors were made and to make focused, critical suggestions for how to avoid these kinds of life-altering errors in the future. Further, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is committed to addressing issues related to errors in evidence. The problem is that, often, evidence that is thoroughly believed at the time it is presented is later disproven or even debunked, which is frequently at the heart of false (or bad) evidence. If you have been convicted as a result of any kind of false evidence, reach out to a dedicated criminal attorney who has a wealth of experience successfully appealing these challenging cases.

If the Witness Lies

If a witness against you lies on the stand, it is called a perjured testimony, and you can seek legal relief in response – although proving that such testimony is actually perjury is unlikely to be easy. In the past, however, the only way to obtain legal relief in the event of untrue testimony was by proving that the untruth was presented intentionally – with knowledge of the testimony’s false nature. This, of course, rarely applies to testimony that is based on science because the experts that present it naturally believe in the veracity of the information at the time.

Considering Arson

Arson is a prime example of how scientific evidence and testimony can veer completely off the mark. According to PBS’s How Arson Investigation Has Changed, up until 2011, arson was often proved by what is known as negative corpus, which amounts to the process of elimination. It worked something like this – if investigators could not find any reasonable source of ignition for the fire, then it had to be an arson case and suspects needed to be rounded up. Further signs that were considered telltale indicators of arson included:

  • Fires that burned especially hot

  • Fires that burned especially fast

  • Fires that burned especially low

The problem with all of this is that much of it has been proven to be incorrect. One notable and tragic example is the case of a Texas man who was convicted of killing his three young children in a fire and who – even as evidence mounted that the arson conviction was not based on valid science – was executed for the crimes in 2004. It is important to note that – when faulty evidence, such as evidence related to arson – was presented in the past, it could not be deemed perjury because the experts presenting the testimony believed it to be true, and this meant those convicted by the testimony could seek legal relief.

Addressing the Issue

In 2009, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed this obvious fly in the ointment in Ex Parte Chabot, and the upshot in the State of Texas is that it no longer matters if the state recognizes that false testimony is the same whether or not the prosecution is aware of its false nature or not, and as such, defendants who are convicted as a result of false testimony have the legal right to establish a violation of due process. Texas is one of the first states to recognize this important right.

In the Chabot Case

In the Chabot case, the defendant was convicted based on an accomplice’s testimony, which relayed that Chabot himself was the only one who sexually assaulted the victim and that he, the accomplice, was in another room at the time of the assault. DNA testing, however, later confirmed that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that Chabot sexually assaulted the victim, and to make the matter worse, there was DNA evidence confirming that the accomplice had. Under traditional analysis methods, Chabot would not have been able to proceed with a claim of a due process violation because the state did not know the accomplice was lying at the time that he testified. The Texas court ultimately held that this distinction had no legal bearing.

Harm Must Be Proven

It is not enough that you prove that false testimony played a role in your case. There must be a cause-and-effect connection, which means that you must be able to demonstrate that the false testimony caused you actual harm. In Chabot, the court held that the test for determining harm is the same for testimony that is known to be false as it is for testimony that is not, and this is that the defendant in question must prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the false testimony actually contributed to his or her conviction. The preponderance of the evidence is less hefty than the standard the court must reach in criminal convictions.

The Preponderance of the Evidence

The preponderance of the evidence means, in essence, that there is more evidence supporting the claim than there is evidence against the claim. In other words, it basically means that it is more likely than not.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The standard of proving something beyond a reasonable doubt is more nuanced and more difficult to pin down. In essence, however, it means that it would be unreasonable to believe in anything other than the defendant’s guilt in the matter.

To prove that the false testimony harmed the defendant in a case, it is necessary to show that it is more likely than not that the false testimony in question proved material in the case – or affected the jury’s judgment in the matter.

The Tool of Article 11.073

Even after the due process expansion defined above, there were still defendants – in cases in which expert testimony changed over time – who were still unable to obtain legal relief, and in response, the legislature enacted Article 11.073 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Now, the statute allows a court to use what is deemed relevant scientific evidence (that was not available at the time of trial or that contradicts the scientific evidence relied upon at trial) to reverse a conviction. In the case that instigated Article 11.073, the following details apply:

  • The coroner determined that the victim was strangled and deemed the death a homicide.

  • When several other medical examiners reviewed the case after the fact, they all expressed similar opinions that the death in question should be classified as undetermined.

  • The original coroner in the case went back and reviewed her testimony and concluded that she could no longer stand behind her original finding (of homicide) in the matter and said that, given her current understanding, she would classify the death as undetermined.

In this case, since the original expert’s understanding of the evidence had changed, the defendant in the case was entitled to legal relief. An important note to make here is that because the experts landed on the finding of undetermined (in relation to cause of death), it meant that the defendant was entitled to relief in the form of a new trial – not in the form of an overturned conviction.

Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

The Innocence Project reports that the leading factor in wrongful convictions is mistaken identifications made by eyewitnesses. In fact, mistaken eyewitness identification played a role in nearly 70 percent of the 375 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by irrefutable post-conviction DNA evidence in the United States. Incorrect eyewitness identifications have all the following marks against them.:

  • Incorrect eyewitness identifications can confound investigations from the outset – leading investigators astray while critical time is lost in the matter of identifying the actual perpetrator.

  • Incorrect eyewitness identifications promote tunnel vision in which investigators focus on the identified person rather than thoroughly exploring all the evidence and seeing the bigger picture.

  • Incorrect eyewitness identifications remain one of the most commonly used and one of the most compelling forms of evidence that is used to convict defendants in criminal cases. This is in spite of the fact that there is a solid and growing body of evidence that deems traditional eyewitness ID procedures (the ones we are all so used to seeing in courtroom dramas on TV) inaccurate and in spite of the fact that measures that could help reform them are readily available.

Considering Lineups

The problems with standard lineups include all the following:

  • In standard lineups, the person running the show – the lineup administrator – generally knows who the suspect in the array of people is, and research makes it clear that this can lead to him or her unintentionally signaling cues to the eyewitness attempting to pick the suspect out of the lineup.

  • In standard lineups, the eyewitness is likely to assume – without instructions from the administrator to the contrary – that the crime’s perpetrator is in the lineup, which can lead to a selection of a suspect despite the eyewitness’s internal doubts on the matter.

  • When the lineup administrator chooses people or photos (for what are known as fillers in the lineup) who do not even resemble the person who has been identified internally as the suspect, it can make the suspect stand out like a sore thumb, and it almost begs the eyewitness to choose him or her.

  • Research demonstrates that when an eyewitness receives information that bolsters his or her identification of a suspect after the lineup, it can significantly – but artificially – increase his or her confidence in the choice he or she made. This makes capturing the eyewitness’s level of confidence in his or her identification at the time he or she makes it critical. Confidence inflation can prove disastrous for the rights of the accused.

Improving the Identification Process

There are a variety of procedural reforms that could help increase the overall accuracy of IDs made by eyewitnesses, including:

  • Double-Blind – A double-blind lineup means that neither the eyewitness nor the lineup administrator knows who the suspect in the lineup is. This eliminates the risk that the administrator will inadvertently influence the eyewitness’s choice.

  • Careful Instructions – Instructions refer to several statements made to the eyewitness by the lineup administrator (prior to the lineup) that are intended to help ensure that the eyewitness does not feel compelled to select someone from the lineup if he or she is not sure. One such instruction is the statement that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup. The idea is to diminish the eyewitness’s urge to look to the administrator for guidance in the form of subtle feedback during the ID process.

  • Composition – The composition of the lineup should be focused on fillers which closely resemble a blending of the suspect in question and the eyewitness’s description of the alleged criminal. In this way, the suspect in the lineup will not automatically pop for the eyewitness.

  • Statement of Confidence – Immediately upon identifying someone in a lineup, the eyewitness should make a statement in his or her own words that accurately states his or her level of confidence regarding the identification he or she just made.

  • Documentation – Finally, the procedure used in the lineup should be documented. Ideally, this means electronically, but if this is not practical, a written or audio accounting can suffice.

With these straightforward steps, eyewitness testimony in our criminal justice system could be rendered considerably more reliable.

Don’t Delay Consulting with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Attorney

If you have been convicted of a crime as a result of bad evidence – or what you think might be bad evidence – Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a savvy criminal attorney who has a proven track record of helping clients like you prevail in these difficult cases. For more information about how we can help you, please do not wait to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 today.

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