Three groups of fair justice advocates have filed friend-of-the-court briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn a Texas appeals court ruling that denied a new trial to a death-row prisoner who prosecutors and the trial court agree was convicted based on false DNA testimony by a disgraced police crime lab.

On July 26, 2022, The Innocence Network and The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, Inc. filed a joint amicus brief on behalf of Areli Escobar asking the justices to summarily reverse the ruling of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) that had rejected the prosecution’s concession and the trial court’s “meticulously documented recommendation” that Escobar be granted a new trial because of materially misleading DNA evidence presented by the now shuttered Austin Police Crime Lab.

“[W]hen a conviction is secured through DNA evidence shown to be false, the risk of wrongful conviction is intolerably high,” the organizations wrote, “especially in a death-penalty case, like this one, with no other reliable incriminating evidence.” The groups called the state appeals court’s ruling “an egregious betrayal of the ideals of fair and accurate criminal justice.”

Two days later, the American Bar Association and a group of seven former state attorneys general, United States Attorneys, and state prosecutors filed two more amicus briefs in support of Escobar. The ABA argued that Escobar’s conviction, based on false testimony by employees of a crime lab that “so consistently and egregiously mishandled DNA evidence that it was shut down by the state,” should be reversed “as a matter of fundamental fairness.”

The former prosecutors urged the justices to grant Escobar a new trial, noting that “Prosecutors do not confess error lightly” and that when they do, “courts should give those confessions due consideration.”

“Now a defendant whom the State of Texas no longer wishes to prosecute, for a crime the State believes he may not have committed, is set to be executed, under a judgment that the State was unwilling to defend,” the prosecutors wrote. “The Court must stop this runaway train.”

Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death in 2011 on charges that he had raped and murdered 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado, who was stabbed 47 times. Prosecutors presented DNA, shoeprint, and fingerprint analysis from the Austin Police Department crime lab that purported to identify Escobar as the assailant. They also presented testimony from Escobar’s ex-girlfriend that she purportedly received a cellphone call in which she heard a woman repeatedly screaming over the course of ten minutes while being raped — although initially the girlfriend had told investigators only that she had heard Escobar having “consensual sex” with a woman.

As the former prosecutors explained, the crime lab was subsequently shut down after a state audit of the facility “ uncovered ‘significant contamination issues,’ discovered that the labs leadership ‘did not have the scientific and technical knowledge necessary to lead the lab,’ and learned the senior DNA analysists who handled the DNA evidence in [Escobar]’s case were found to have a ‘suspect and victim-driven bias’ that led them to work backward from the goal of obtaining a conviction and make the data line up accordingly.” The ABA, which promulgated standards for the use of DNA evidence in criminal cases in 2006 as part of its widely followed ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, explained that the Austin crime lab violated professional standards regarding accreditation, transparency, scientific best practices, contamination, scientific protocols, quality assurance, and bias in the interpretation of DNA test results.

The crime lab’s “pattern of misconduct was on full display in Mr. Escobar’s case,” the Innocence Network and The Center for Integrity in Forensic Science said in their brief. “The DNA evidence was exposed to severe contamination risks at the lab, and the analysts assigned to this case repeatedly ignored best practices and engaged in bias-driven manipulation of the testing to incriminate Mr. Escobar. The prosecution broadcast this false testing as the centerpiece of its case, and one juror even stated publicly that the DNA evidence took him off the fence and convinced him to join a guilty verdict.”

After conducting an extensive evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that “there can be no confidence that the lab produced valid and accurate results.” It further found that, “after removing the DNA evidence presented at trial, the remaining evidence relied on by the State was questionable and circumstantial.” Noting that one juror “was ‘on the fence’ until the DNA evidence was submitted,” the trial court found that “the use of unreliable and misleading DNA evidence violated Mr. Escobar’s due process rights by undermining the fundamental fairness of his trial” and recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grant him a new trial.

With the case before the TCCA, the Travis County District Attorney’s office conceded that a prejudicial constitutional violation had occurred, and that Escobar was entitled to a new trial. However, without acknowledging the prosecution’s concession, the TCCA denied relief in an unpublished per curiam opinion issued January 26, 2022. The court asserted that Escobar had “failed to show that the general deficiencies discovered in the [crime lab] audit specifically affected the DNA results in his particular case” and that the faulty DNA evidence was not “material.” It ruled that the other evidence presented by the prosecution—including “that Applicant’s shoe could not be excluded as a possible contributor to a shoe print found at the crime scene” and “a latent print on a lotion bottle near [the victim’s] body was identified to the ring finger of Applicant’s left hand”—likely would independently have sustained the conviction. The court then summarily rejected the prosecution’s motion to reconsider its decision.

The Innocence Network and Center for Integrity in Forensics took sharp issue with that conclusions, noting that “the other forensic evidence introduced against [Escobar] was also unreliable.” The shoe-print analysis, they wrote, “was unscientific and showed nothing more than that a tread pattern on the crime scene resembled a pattern found on thousands of other shoes in the area, including one of Mr. Escobar’s.” The fingerprint evidence came from a low-quality partial print and the testimony that it was supposedly a “match” to Escobar came after a mid-trial reevaluation of the print that contradicted prior prosecution testimony that “there were no positive results for the latent prints found in [the victim]’s apartment.”

All three amici strongly challenged the TCCA’s conclusion that the false DNA testimony was immaterial. “[W]hen false DNA evidence is the cornerstone of a prosecution, the risk of wrongful conviction is severe,” the innocence brief wrote. And, the ABA wrote, in a capital case where the outcome is a matter of life or death, “[f]inality interests should never trump the misuse of inaccurate DNA evidence.”


Grace Reader, Texas death row case could get Supreme Court review, Austin’s faulty DNA lab the focus, KXAN-TV, Austin, July 29, 2022; Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA urges Supreme Court to hear case of inmate con­vict­ed based on faulty DNA evi­dence, ABA Journal, August 1, 2022; Austin Office of Assistant City Manager, Update Regarding Activities to Address APD DNA Lab Audit Recommendations, October 22020

Read the brief and sup­port­ing appen­dices filed by Areli Escobar and the ami­cus curi­ae briefs filed by the Innocence Network, the American Bar Association, and for­mer pros­e­cu­tors in Escobar v. Texas.