The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a Travis County death row inmate’s appeal against the decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to uphold his conviction and death sentence, sending him back to the appellate court.
The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeals to further consider a brief filed by Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza, admitting that—in part because of past problems with the DNA lab formerly run by the Austin Police Department—the prosecutor’s office offered erroneous and misleading judicial medical evidence at Arelie Escobar’s trial in 2011, and that evidence was critical to the outcome of his case.
The Court of Appeal still has the option to reach the same conclusion and uphold the verdict again.
The trial of Escobar, convicted of sexually assaulting and fatally stabbing 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado, is by far the most high-profile case to be retried after a state audit found the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab misanalyzed forensic evidence . The state Department of Public Safety now operates the lab.
In May 2009, Maldonado was stabbed, beaten and raped 46 times in May 2009 before she bled to death in her Decker Lane apartment, where Escobar also lived, according to investigators. The murdered LBJ high school student was alone with her one-year-old son, who was injured but survived.
When Escobar’s girlfriend called him on his cell phone early in the morning, she heard the woman’s repeated screams, she testified at the trial. Escobar later arrived at his mother’s home with a bloody shirt, according to testimony from his arrest.
Two years ago, state district judge David Wahlberg recommended a new trial for Escobar, citing multiple reports of problems with the lab.
“It would be a shock to conscience to let the sentence stand,” Wahlberg concluded, adding that “Escobar’s trial was fundamentally unfair.”
A 2016 audit by the Texas Forensic Science Board found serious problems at the Austin Police Crime Lab, which tested evidence in the Escobar case or packaged evidence for testing at a third-party lab.
According to the audit, the DNA analysts did not follow scientifically accepted methods; laboratory managers did not have the necessary scientific and technical knowledge; and poor quality control allowed evidence to be corrupted during testing.
Problems with DNA evidence in the Escobar case came to light early on.
Nine months before the trial, the Austin police DNA lab asked DPS to run more tests on a stain on a shirt and a stain on a doorknob lock. Three days after a jury found Escobar guilty of capital murder, then-DPS analyst Jodie Koehler reported that she was unable to find any DNA profiles from the stain.
However, Escobar’s attorneys did not receive a copy of the Koehler report until years later.
“If Mr. Escobar’s lawyer had Ms. Koehler’s report when it was first released on May 16, 2011, Mr. Escobar’s lawyer could have used the report as mitigating evidence in the punishment phase of Mr. Escobar. and file a motion for a mistrial and/or file a motion for a new trial based on new evidence,” Wahlberg wrote in his recommendation.
This amounted to the prosecution’s suppression of evidence in Escobar’s favor, which violated his 14th Amendment right to due process, Wahlberg wrote.
The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Escobar’s conviction a year ago, ruling that while the DNA statistics used to link Escobar and Maldonado to blood samples had been discredited, recalculated statistics confirmed links to some of the samples. In addition, other evidence also links Escobar to the crime, including a fingerprint, a bloody shoe print, and testimony from a former girlfriend who told jurors that she called Escobar during the four-hour window during which the murder occurred and overheard “a woman screaming and scream.”
In their Supreme Court summaries, defense lawyers and prosecutors argued that serious testing problems at the DNA lab made any recalculated statistics meaningless, as the lab was still collecting and packaging evidence.
Garza also told the court that two analysts who collected and reviewed evidence in the Escobar case had 14 “infection incidents” while working in the Austin lab. In Escobar’s case, one analyst broke the rules by placing poorly sealed crime scene samples next to samples taken from Escobar, he added.
In addition, Garza noted that a friend’s testimony about her early morning phone call to Escobar changed significantly in the two years between the crime and trial, initially telling at least four people that she had heard what sounded like Escobar was having consensual sex. adding that their relationship was over.
Analysts initially determined that Escobar did not match any of the fingerprints collected at the crime scene, but one print was reanalyzed mid-trial and determined to match Escobar’s ring finger knuckle. An outside expert later determined that the print taken from a lotion bottle found near the victim was of poor quality and that his association with Escobar was not up to scientific standards, Garza said.
The bloody shoe print only matched some aspects of Escobar’s shoes, and the prosecution’s examiner did not measure the print and could not determine the size, brand or type of shoe that made the impression, Garza said, adding, “There could potentially be thousands of similar shoes in the Austin area.”