U.S. Supreme Court tells Texas to reconsider executing man convicted with faulty DNA evidence

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered Texas highest criminal court to revisit a death penalty case. (Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune, Jason Garza For The Texas Tribune)

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision to let a death row inmate be executed even though prosecutors now agree his conviction should be thrown out because it relied on potentially faulty DNA evidence.

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In 2011, Areli Escobar was convicted of the rape and murder of 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado. In 2020, a district court judge ruled that Escobar deserved a new trial because his conviction relied heavily on “scientifically unreliable” DNA evidence analyzed by a Travis County lab that was later closed down due to untrained staff and improper testing procedures.

In 2016, the Austin Police Department was forced to shut down its crime lab after the Texas Forensic Science Commission found widespread issues with its DNA testing.

On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Travis County District Attorney José Garza agreed with Escobar that he should be granted a new trial. Still, the state’s highest criminal court upheld Escobar’s conviction, finding that he “has failed to show that the general deficiencies discovered in the [Texas Forensic Science Commission] audit specifically affected the DNA results in his particular case.”

The flawed DNA evidence was a crucial part of the state’s case against Escobar, said Benjamin Wolff, director of the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, the state’s post-conviction public defender for capital and forensic science cases who represented Escobar in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

“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,” Wolff said. “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.”

In Escobar’s brief to the court, Wolff argued that the Court of Criminal Appeals went too far in upholding a conviction that the state’s own prosecuting office no longer supported. “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stepped outside of the judicial role by sustaining the conviction on the basis of 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 brief stated.

It’s rare in Texas for the prosecution to reverse course in these types of high-profile cases, even when new evidence is found. In such cases, though, the Court of Criminal Appeals has at least once failed to be swayed. Bobby Moore, another Texas death row inmate, was twice found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty — and was supported in that stance by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. After the first Supreme Court ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again found Moore eligible for execution; he was granted parole in 2020 after the second, more forceful Supreme Court ruling was issued in 2019.

The Travis County district attorney said the Supreme Court’s ruling made Monday “an important day for justice” in the county, noting that all sides agree about the need for a new trial.

“It is undeniable that the jury in this case was told things that ended up not being accurate,” Garza said. “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 that perspective and review the facts of this case.”

“No one should be convicted or sentenced to death because of junk science,” said Wolff, Escobar’s attorney. “And no one should ever be put to death when the prosecution that secured their conviction can’t stand behind it.”