Supreme Court Sides with Defense on Death Row Case
The state forensics lab that handled the evidence in Areli Escobar’s capital case was so bad that Texas officials closed it for good five years after a jury sentenced the then 32-year-old to death in 2011. The evidence in the case was so tenuous that the Travis County District Attorney’s office ultimately sided with the defense, arguing that Escobar deserved a new trial.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the case deserves another look.
“We are thrilled the Supreme Court stepped in to give Mr. Escobar a chance to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice in his case,” said Daniel Woofter, one of Escobar’s defense attorneys on Monday. “We’re talking about a life or death case where all of the parties, including the prosecutors, don’t think he should be put to death without a fair trial,” he previously told the Observer.
Escobar was sentenced to death for murder of 17-year-old Bianca Maldenado Hernandez, who lived in the same apartment complex in Austin. Escobar has always maintained his innocence.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, will now reexamine Escobar’s case, although it may not take up the matter for several months. The Supreme Court’s order asks the Texas court to take special notice of the prosecution’s change of heart.
It’s rare for the state to change its position on a past conviction, but it’s not unheard of. In fact, Texas Representative Joe Moody filed a bill ahead of the 88th legislative session—which begins today—that would not allow any execution date to be set if the attorney representing the state does not support it.
In May 2009, Hernandez was sexually assaulted and stabbed 43 times. Her infant son was found next to her as she lay dead on the living room floor.
Escobar’s conviction hinged on testimony from his ex-girlfriend, who alleged she overheard the attack when she called his phone that night. But the state supported its case with flawed forensic evidence: A fingerprint that an analyst first determined didn’t match Escobar, but then changed her mind after a mid-trial reanalysis. A shoe print at the scene that was said to be a potential match for Escobar’s sneakers.
State witnesses also claimed that DNA analyses of stains on Escobar’s clothes found samples that could have come from the victim—or at least did not exclude her as the source. But all of this evidence, which one juror said sealed the deal for the guilty verdict, was discredited after the trial.
“What’s unique about this case is the presence of suspect-driven bias … And then the laboratory not following proper protocols and there being indications of contamination,” said Benjamin Wolff, director of the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs and Woofter’s co-counsel. “This is how wrongful convictions happen. And that’s what occurred in this case.”
When Travis County District Attorney José Garza took office in 2021, he decided to review the allegations of flawed forensic evidence in the Escobar case. “In the overwhelming majority of instances, we have faith in our prosecutors, we have faith in the evidence that we presented, we have faith in the outcomes that juries reach,” Garza told the Observer. “So in the absence of evidence that would question our faith in those things, generally speaking, my instinct as a district attorney is to defend convictions that our offices secure. That was my instinct in this case as well.”
But he said the facts of the Escobar trial troubled him. He asked his lawyers to evaluate the case and together, they decided the “evidence the jury depended on was … in many instances, misleading and inaccurate,” Garza said.
At the heart of the controversy is the now-shuttered Austin Police Department’s DNA Lab. The harsh spotlight of accountability first shone on the lab in 2015, when the Texas Forensic Science Commission reached out to all Texas DNA labs to make sure they were using the most up-to-date procedures. The response from APD’s lab staff was swift—they were incensed. The Lab’s DNA supervisor claimed the commission hadn’t considered that these updates—which may have resulted in changed findings—could make the crime lab look bad.
The Travis County DA’s office in 2015 brought on its own DNA expert to double check a handful of cases the lab had previously handled. This expert found alarming instances of flawed DNA testing methods. The Texas Forensic Science Commission, which accredits forensics labs across the state, undertook its own audit. The findings were so grim, the lab agreed to forfeit its accreditation status. The lab was permanently closed in 2016 after an outside investigation found a slew of problems, including confirmation bias, DNA contamination, and lab protocols that didn’t meet the standards of the scientific community.
The extent of the forensics lab’s failure—including the number of cases potentially affected by the shoddy work—remains fuzzy. But In Escobar’s case, the lab’s practices cast doubt on the evidence used to convict him. In 2020, a district judge found that the DNA used to convict Escobar was unreliable. The court found that “from at least 2006 and up until the closure of the lab” the analysts were improperly handling evidence.
Escobar is one of only five Travis County death row cases; he and two others were sentenced between 2006 and 2011.
The APD lab’s analysts, as well as an independent analyst who served as a second opinion, received more information about the case than they should have before testing. This created an environment that was ripe for bias, the court found. In addition, the inclusion of misleading DNA evidence very likely influenced jurors’ decision to convict Escobar and sentence him to death.
“In the criminal justice community, DNA evidence is generally regarded as the gold standard of forensics,” the district court judge concluded as part of the appeal “Such evidence is critical in cases such as this one: a stranger-on-stranger offense with no eyewitnesses or other information immediately implicating a suspect. DNA evidence is highly compelling for jurors.”
The current Austin crime lab is distinct from its predecessor—it became fully independent from the Austin Police Department in October 2022. The lab, which does many forensic practices in-house, now outsources its DNA processing. The city has outsourced these services since 2017 and has an agreement to continue with its current vendors until 2027. The lab is accredited and was recently recognized for its early adoption of more rigorous standards, according to a City of Austin spokesperson.
Today, defense lawyers in Central Texas are actively reviewing cases that may have been affected by the old Austin crime lab’s shoddy work, according to DA Garza. When they flag a case, they bring it to the DA’s office, which then does its own evaluation of whether the case holds water. Garza said they’ve identified at least one other case in addition to Escobar’s that relied on faulty evidence.
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