Texas Murder Convict May Stand Trial Due to DNA Defect, Other Cases Still Pending

Austin (KXAN) — Arelie Escobar, who was found guilty of capital murder by a jury, is one step closer to retrial after the Supreme Court ruling.

Escobar was sentenced to death for stabbing and raping 17-year-old high school student Bianca Maldonado in May 2009.

On Monday, Supreme Court justices overturned a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that refused to grant Escobar, who was on death row, a new trial.

During the trial, prosecutors used DNA from the Austin Police Department’s old crime lab, which has a nasty history.

“We were deeply concerned that the evidence considered by the jury in this case was unreliable,” said Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza.

A 2016 audit found that lab technicians used expired materials and faulty science when working with DNA, potentially leading to thousands of failures.

“DNA is very important to the jury. They find it very important because it’s science,” said Stacey Lieberman, director of The Forensic Project, a group set up to look at cases that may have been affected by problems in the former lab. She is not one of Escobar’s lawyers.

About 500 people have approached Forensic Project lawyers about their cases, according to a city memo released last fall.

“Each person is going through the scrutiny that the gravity of the situation demands and deserves,” Lieberman said, adding that The Forensic Project has reviewed more than half of the cases presented to the group, Lieberman said. “When a wrongful conviction occurs, there is always a risk that the true perpetrator has escaped justice.”

One man’s conviction has already been cleared thanks to the efforts of The Forensic Project: LaMarcus Turner. Police arrested him in 2014 and charged him with drug possession. In 2021, an appeals court ruled that the DNA used in his case was unreliable.

Problems in the lab surfaced after Escobar was convicted, Garza said, and the newfound information prompted an elected district judge to hold a special evidence hearing in his case. Ultimately, the judge offered to give Escobar a new trial, which the appeals court ignored. After the decision of the Supreme Court on Monday, the case was again referred to the Court of Appeal.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize that [the victim’s family’s] pain and their pain,” Garza said. “This decision in no way detracts from that. I hope this decision moves us on a path where we can achieve justice that we can all be proud of. Justice that truly honors the victims in this case, and it’s in line with our rules in this country and our values ​​in society.”

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