The U.S. Supreme Court and Faulty DNA Evidence in a Texas Case

Police tape and blurry figures at a Texas crime scene

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According to The Texas Tribune, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider a past ruling that denied a man who was sentenced to death to a retrial.

The Supreme Court, and even the state prosecutors, believe that the conviction in question should be thrown out because the DNA evidence that convicted the defendant in the first place came from a lab that has since been permanently closed due to faulty practices.

This situation shows that, when facing criminal charges, nothing should be left up to chance. Because there is a lot at stake when you are facing a criminal charge – even if the charge is relatively minor – working closely with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney is always advantageous.

The Case

In 2011, Areli Escobar was convicted of the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Austin. However, in 2020, a district court judge found that Escobar’s conviction was predicated on DNA evidence that was “scientifically unreliable,” and, as a result, the court found that Escobar deserved a new trial.

The evidence in the case was primarily circumstantial (according to The New York Times) and included cell tower records and a partial fingerprint.

The case, in other words, hinged on DNA evidence. In fact, at a later hearing in which Escobar challenged his conviction, a juror in his original trial reported that the DNA evidence in the case had been critical.

The juror in question summed things up as follows: “I was sitting on the fence, if you will, as to whether he was guilty or not guilty all the way up to when the DNA evidence was submitted to the jury and, for me, that was the sealing factor.”

The Travis County Lab

The evidence for Escobar’s case was processed at the Travis County lab, which was closed in 2016 because of a variety of infractions that included all the following problems:

  • Failure to follow the necessary scientific protocols

  • Bias

  • Inadequately trained staff

  • Improper testing techniques

After the Texas Forensic Science Commission identified a wide range of issues with the crime lab’s DNA testing, the lab ceased all operations and never reopened. In fact, criminal judges in Travis County penned a letter to the Austin City Council in 2016 that called every determination made by the lab into question.

The Texas trial court that originally took Escobar’s request for post-conviction relief found that the DNA evidence in his case could have been contaminated in multiple ways, but that the jury relied on this possibly faulty evidence for its guilty verdict.

The Judge Weighs In

Judge Wahlberg wrote an 86-page decision regarding Escobar’s conviction directed to the Travis County District Court, which included all the following statements:

  • “It would be shocking to the conscious to uphold the conviction of Mr. Escobar.”

  • “Mr. Escobar’s trial was fundamentally unfair.”

  • The DNA evidence in the case was “false, misleading, and unreliable.”

  • “Without the DNA evidence, the remaining evidence relied on by the state was circumstantial and weak and would not have supported a conviction for capital murder.”

For its part, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas, stated that evidence other than DNA evidence was sufficient to uphold the conviction even in light of the deficiencies the lab audit uncovered.

In Response

In Texas, trial courts can only make recommendations, and in Escobar’s case, the trial court recommended that he receive a new trial based on the use of faulty DNA evidence, which violated his constitutional right to due process.

The case proceeded on appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, where Escobar’s conviction was ultimately upheld based on the finding that the defense failed to demonstrate that “the general deficiencies discovered in the [Texas Forensic Science Commission] audit specifically affected the DNA results in his particular case.”

Discrepancies in Usual Practice

Escobar’s defense team voiced its concern that the appeals court had failed to include a key element in its determination process: the fact that even the prosecution had abandoned its belief in Escobar’s conviction.

After the appeals court ruling, Garza (the DA who originally obtained Escobar’s conviction) offered the judge an opportunity to reverse course. Garza filed a final brief suggesting that the ruling judges may have lost sight of the fact that everyone involved, including the original trial judge, the prosecution, and the defense, were in unison regarding Escobar’s right to a new trial.

The brief was based on the fact that the appeals court failed to engage in the usual practice of acknowledging the state’s stance regarding the applicant’s entitlement to relief.

In other words, the appeals court denied Escobar’s request for reconsideration in the matter of retrial without providing a reason for doing so and without addressing the state’s input.

The DA’s Position

Garza shared that, by ignoring the state’s admission of error on the matter of Escobar’s conviction, the appeals court undermined the role the DA plays in the criminal justice system while failing to remedy a violation of due process acknowledged by both sides.

Garza stated to the justices involved, “If you look at the trial record carefully, there can be no question that the state relied heavily upon the DNA evidence. And then when you look at the DNA evidence in this case and the history of the lab that produced it, there can be no question that that evidence is suspect at the very least.“

Escobar’s Appeal to the Supreme Court

The director of the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, which is Texas’s post-conviction public defender for capital and forensic science cases, represented Escobar in his appeal to the Supreme Court. The director had this to say about the faulty DNA evidence that played a critical role in putting Escobar on death row:

“The trial court, the defense, and the prosecution all agree that Mr. Escobar should not have been convicted because the evidence used to convict him was entirely unreliable. Thankfully, the Supreme Court stepped in and recognized that, in a death penalty case, it matters when the state can no longer support the conviction.”

The Argument

Some argued that Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals exceeded the bounds of justice by upholding a conviction that its own prosecutorial office no longer supported. In so doing, the court sustained a capital murder conviction based on “the arguments no party made, reaching a result no party advocated, and in the process took upon itself the role of the prosecutor to decide whether the evidence was reliable enough to warrant the State convicting and executing petitioner.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Escobar’s case earlier this month caused the Travis County DA to say it was “an important day for justice,” referencing the fact that all involved sides agreed on the need for a new trial.

Inaccuracies vs. Complete and Accurate Facts

The Travis County DA summarized the situation, saying, “It is undeniable that the jury in this case was told things that ended up not being accurate. We believe it’s really important for someone accused of a crime to have a jury that has access to complete and accurate facts. We’re hopeful that the Court of Criminal Appeals will share [this] perspective and review the facts of this case.”

Ultimately, the DA opined that junk science should not guide convictions and should not lead to death sentences. In other words, when the prosecution refuses to stand behind a conviction, the death sentence should no longer be on the table.

The Prosecution’s Change of Heart

According to The New York Times, José P. Garza – the DA whose office originally obtained Escobar’s conviction – shared that his initial reaction to Escobar’s appeal was to double down on his office’s original finding. However, as evidence piled up against the suspect DNA evidence utilized by the jury, Garza was moved to reconsider.

While Garza admitted that every DA’s instinct is to defend the convictions their office achieves, he went on to proclaim that their ultimate mission is upholding justice.

Upon Reaching Texas’s Highest Criminal Court

Once Escobar’s case made its way to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Garza made a surprise move by joining Escobar’s legal team in its quest to obtain a new trial that excluded the suspect DNA evidence.

However, Texas’s highest criminal court was not swayed and ultimately upheld Escobar’s conviction in a brief opinion that was not signed and that did not mention the prosecution’s altered stance.

Texas Can Be Difficult to Sway

When it comes to high-profile cases like Escobar’s, the State of Texas is loath to change course – even when there is reason to believe that such an action may be in order, such as in the face of new evidence.

For another example, consider the case of Bobby Moore:

  • Moore was a death row inmate whom the Supreme Court deemed intellectually disabled and, therefore, not eligible for execution.

  • The Harris County DA supported the Supreme Court’s position on the matter.

  • After the Supreme Court’s first ruling in Moore’s case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Moore’s eligibility for execution in the state.

  • It was not until the Supreme Court issued a more forceful ruling in 2019 that Texas changed course and granted Moore parole in 2020.

Due Process Related to Criminal Charges

Due process is an obligation owed to us by the government that is intended to ensure fairness across all criminal cases – before being deprived of one’s fundamental rights via government action. The basics when it comes to due process include all the following:

  • Laws must be fair to begin with.

  • Legal proceedings must be conducted fairly.

  • Limitations on the coercive power of the government must be maintained.

  • Protections against arbitrary governmental actions must be maintained.

While due process does not prohibit actions, such as the handing down of a death sentence in the State of Texas, it does require that primary procedures be carefully adhered to.

If You Are Charged with a Crime

If you are charged with a crime in Texas, you are entitled to procedural due process, which includes the following rights:

  • The government cannot charge you with a crime or take any other action that could deprive you of life, liberty, or property without first providing you with the proper notification.

  • Prior to action being taken against you by the government, you have the right to present your case to a neutral fact finder, such as to a jury at trial.

You have the right to be heard in relation to the charge brought against you – at which time it is in your best interest to present your strongest defense.

Additional Protections

Due process also protects us from laws that are vaguely written and from laws that infringe upon our fundamental liberties.

Many argue that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal denied Escobar due process when it denied him a retrial in response to the faulty DNA evidence that convicted him.

It Is Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been charged with a crime in the State of Texas – regardless of its magnitude – proceeding without professional legal counsel puts you in a precarious position. Your rights are too important to ignore.

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a savvy criminal defense attorney who is on your side and here to help. Mr. Pritchard dedicates his imposing practice to staunchly defending every client's legal rights – in pursuit of advantageous case outcomes.

Our dedicated legal team has the experience, legal insight, and skills that you are looking for. To learn more about what we can do to help you, please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 today.