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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Supreme Court revives case of death row inmate convicted on bad DNA evidence

A Texas appeals court rejected Areli Escobar’s challenge to the DNA evidence used against him in his murder trial even after state prosecutors admitted it was unreliable.

(CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived a Texas death row inmate’s claim that his murder conviction should be tossed out on the grounds that DNA evidence used at his trial was later found to be misleading and unreliable.

The high court threw out a judgment by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals which refused to grant the inmate, Areli Escobar, a new trial on his 2011 conviction and death sentence for the fatal stabbing and sexual assault of 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado.

Escobar had received the rare support of the state prosecutor’s office, which agreed with him that his federal due process rights were violated by the use of faulty DNA evidence during his trial.

After Escobar’s conviction, the state discovered what it described as “serious deficiencies” in the Austin Police Department laboratory conducting the DNA testing.

A 2016 audit carried out by the Texas Forensic Science Commission revealed that lab technicians were using flawed science to calculate the odds of DNA results and used expired materials during testing. The lab was shuttered because of the audit’s findings.

The audit also uncovered multiple contamination incidents at the lab and showed that staff were inadequately trained and supervised. One lab analyst who had five contamination incidents in the span of a year and a half was the same analyst who performed serology on biological evidence in Escobar’s case.

Even though Escobar, state prosecutors and a Texas habeas court were all in agreement that the DNA evidence was unreliable, the appeals court refused to acknowledge the state’s admission of error and instead ruled that Escobar had not shown that the DNA evidence was likely to have affected the jury’s verdict.

The decision overruled a lower court judge who had found that “it would be shocking to the conscience” to uphold Escobar’s conviction in light of the “fundamentally unfair” trial.

In a September brief filed into the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket by the state, Texas district attorneys agreed that Escobar was entitled to a new trial due to flawed forensic evidence which was “material to the outcome of the case.”

The state’s attorneys admitted that the DNA evidence “formed the backbone” of the state’s case since Escobar was apparently a stranger to the victim and there were no eyewitnesses. The non-DNA forensic evidence in the case “had significant shortcomings,” according to the brief.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “for further consideration in light of the confession of error by Texas.”

Escobar, who lived in the same apartment complex as the victim, was initially linked to the crime because of an ex-girlfriend’s reports that she had heard a woman screaming when she tried to call him on the morning of the murder.

There was also evidence that Escobar appeared at his mother’s home on the morning of the murder, injured and wearing bloody clothing.

Follow @KaylaGoggin_CNS
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Trials

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