SCOTUS directs Texas appeals court to reconsider 2011 murder conviction based on faulty DNA analysis

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The Supreme Court ordered a Texas appeals court on Jan. 9 to reconsider the murder conviction of death row inmate Areli Escobar because the DNA evidence used to convict him was later discovered to be unreliable.

Texas had admitted in court papers filed with the Supreme Court that some of the evidence against Escobar was questionable and that he was entitled to a new trial but a state appeals court upheld the conviction.

Escobar’s attorney, Daniel Woofter of Goldstein and Russell, hailed the ruling.

“We are thrilled the Court stepped in to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice in Mr. Escobar’s capital case,” Woofter told The Epoch Times by email.

Escobar was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2011, based on DNA evidence found on his clothes that was analyzed by local police and a private laboratory. The jury was informed that the blood “could not be excluded” as containing the DNA of the victim or of Escobar. Following the conviction, the police laboratory was closed after a state investigation found its work was unreliable.

The Supreme Court summarily disposed of the case, known as Escobar v. Texas, court file 21-1601, simultaneously granting the petitioner’s request seeking review while skipping over the oral argument phase, when the merits of the case would have been considered. Some lawyers call this process GVR, which stands for grant, vacate, and remand.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas was directed to reconsider the case “in light of the confession of error by Texas in its brief filed on September 28, 2022.”

Texas acknowledged in its brief (pdf) that a lower court entered “over 400 findings of fact and conclusions of law and determining that Petitioner’s [i.e., Escobar’s] conviction was secured in violation of his right to due process.”

“Faced with the District Court’s exhaustive and persuasive findings, in the interest of justice, the District Attorney undertook a comprehensive reexamination of the forensic evidence and claims raised in Petitioner’s case. As a result of that review, the State filed a document contesting some aspects of the findings, but ultimately agreeing that Petitioner was entitled to a new trial.”

According to court papers, Bianca Maldonado Hernandez was found dead at home by relatives on May 31, 2009. The victim had been stabbed repeatedly and sexually assaulted with an unknown object that was never found. There was no indication of forced entry to the premises and there were no eyewitnesses to the crime. Austin police found various blood stains, a blood-stained lotion bottle with a partial fingerprint, and a shoe print impression.

Escobar, who resided in the same apartment complex, became a suspect when police discovered that his then-girlfriend contacted several acquaintances saying that when she called Escobar the morning of the murder, she heard what sounded like sex taking place. Escobar said he had sex with another woman but denied that he had hurt anyone. Police also found that Escobar has visited his mother’s home the morning of the murder and had bodily injuries and blood spots on his clothes, which he claimed resulted from his being “jumped.” He changed his clothing.

In 2020, a state judge found Escobar was entitled to a new trial because “newly available scientific evidence demonstrates that the DNA evidence relied upon for this conviction was scientifically unreliable.”

Despite that ruling, a year ago the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas upheld Escobar’s conviction, finding his attorneys hadn’t proven the unreliability of the DNA evidence used against him.

Craig J. Trocino, an associate professor of Clinical Legal Education and director of the Miami Law Innocence Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, also was pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It’s a welcome victory, for sure, for Mr. Escobar and for everybody who has been faced with faulty DNA evidence, because DNA is essentially the gold standard of forensic science and for good reason,” Trocino told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“When used properly, it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It can identify the guilty, it can solve cold cases,” he said.

“When used improperly, it causes significant problems, because juries still view it as that incredibly powerful … tool, even though it might have been improperly used like it was in Mr. Escobar’s case.”

The Epoch Times reached out for comment to Holly Eileen Taylor of the Travis County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Jan. 9, 2023, in The Epoch Times.