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The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision to execute a death row inmate, although prosecutors now agree that his conviction should be overturned because it was based on potentially flawed DNA evidence.
In 2011, Areli Escobar was convicted of the rape and murder of 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado. In 2020, a county court judge ruled that Escobar deserved a new trial because his conviction was largely based on “scientifically unreliable” DNA evidence analyzed by the Travis County Lab, which was later closed due to untrained staff and improper procedures. testing.
In 2016, the Austin Police Department was forced to close her crime lab after the Texas Medical Examiner’s Board found widespread problems with her DNA testing.
On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza agreed with Escobar that he should have a new trial. However, the state’s highest criminal court upheld Escobar’s conviction, finding that he “failed to prove that the general flaws found in [Texas Forensic Science Commission] the audit particularly affected the results of the DNA analysis in his particular case.”
Incorrect DNA evidence was an important part of the state’s case against Escobar, said Benjamin Wolf, director of the Death Penalty and Forensics Administration, the state’s post-sentencing public defender in the death penalty and forensic cases, who represented Escobar in his appeal to the court. Supreme Court.
“The trial court, the defense and the prosecution agree that Mr. Escobar should not have been convicted because the evidence used to convict him was completely unreliable,” Wolf said. “Fortunately, the Supreme Court stepped in and recognized that in a death penalty case, it matters when the state can no longer uphold a conviction.”
In Escobar’s memo to the court, Wolf argued that the Court of Criminal Appeals had gone too far by upholding the conviction, which was no longer upheld by the state’s own prosecutor’s office. “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has gone beyond a judicial role, upholding a guilty verdict based on arguments advanced by neither party, achieving an outcome that neither party advocated, and in the process took on the role of a prosecutor to decide whether the evidence was reliable enough to warrant the state’s conviction and execution of the plaintiff,” the note said.
In Texas, prosecutors rarely change course in such high-profile cases, even when new evidence is uncovered. However, in such cases, the Court of Criminal Appeal at least once did not succumb to persuasion. Bobby Moore, another death row inmate in Texas, twice recognized by the US Supreme Court be mentally handicapped and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, a position supported by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. Following the Supreme Court’s first ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found Moore again eligible for execution; he was released on parole in 2020 following a second, stronger Supreme Court ruling in 2019.
The Travis County District Attorney said the Supreme Court’s decision made Monday “an important day for justice” in the county, noting that all parties agree that a new trial is needed.
“It’s undeniable that the jury in this case was told things that ended up being inaccurate,” Garza said. “We believe it is very important for a person charged with a crime to have a jury that has access to complete and accurate facts. We hope that the Court of Criminal Appeals will share this view and consider the facts of this case.”
“No one should be convicted or sentenced to death because of pseudoscience,” said Wolf, Escobar’s lawyer. “And no one should ever be executed if the prosecution that secured his conviction cannot stand up for it.”