Court reopens Texas death row lawsuit upheld by district attorney

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday resumed hearings on the claims of a Texas prisoner who enjoys rare support from the state’s attorney’s office, which sentenced him to death.

Judges overturned a Texas appeals court decision that ruled prisoner, Arelie Escobar, not subject to a new trial. A state appeals court overturned a decision by a lower court judge who documented flaws in the forensic evidence used to convict Escobar.

By decision of the court, the case is returned to the Court of Appeal.

Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death in May 2009 for the fatal stabbing and sexual rape of Bianca Maldonado, a 17-year-old high school student in Austin. They lived in the same apartment building.

The focus of the prosecution against Escobar was evidence from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab.

But a later audit uncovered problems in the lab that led Judge David Wahlberg of the Travis County Circuit Court to conclude that Escobar’s trial was unfair.

“The state’s use of unreliable, false, or misleading DNA evidence to convict (Escobar) violated fundamental concepts of justice,” Wahlberg wrote.

When the case returned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Travis County prosecutors no longer defended the conviction. Voters elected a new District Attorney, Jose Garza, who promised to hold police accountable in Austin, the state capital and county.

But the appellate court refused to agree, saying it had done its own review that justified the confirmation of the guilty verdict and sentence, and made no mention of the prosecution’s change of position. Even after Garza’s office indicated that it no longer supported the conviction, the appeals court stood by its decision.

In a Supreme Court filing, Garza’s office wrote that prosecutors have a duty to deliver justice and that the appeals court “has undermined the District Attorney’s historic role in the criminal justice system.”

Escobar’s lawyers, unsurprisingly, agreed, telling the court that their case was so clear that the judges could overrule the appellate decision without hearing arguments.

“If ever there was a case requiring a summary review, it is a hard case. Rejecting the petition would be a serious miscarriage of justice,” they wrote.

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