U.S. Supreme Court Asks for Record of Texas Case Where Relief Denied Despite Agreement of Prosecutor and Trial Judge that Death-Row Prisoner Should Get New Trial

The United States Supreme Court has requested the production of the appellate record of a death penalty case in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) refused to grant a new trial to a death-row prisoner despite the agreement of county prosecutors that the use of faulty forensic evidence from a discredited crime lab to convict Areli Escobar (pictured) denied him a fair trial.

Travis County prosecutors have taken the rare step of filing a response brief in support of Escobar’s petition for writ of certiorari asking that the Court review his case and reverse his conviction. On September 28, 2022, Travis County District Attorney José P. Garza conceded in the prosecution’s brief that “the State had offered flawed and misleading forensic evidence at Petitioner’s trial and this evidence was material to the outcome of his case in violation of clearly established federal due process law.” Garza wrote that “the State agrees with Petitioner that this Court should summarily reverse the [TCCA’s] ruling or, alternatively, grant the petition and set this case for argument.”

Escobar’s case has been distributed to the justices for conference three times since the completion of briefing on October 11, 2022. After the Court’s October 28, 2022 conference, the justices requested that the TCCA transmit the record of the case to the Court. The case docket reflects that the Court received an electronic record of the case, including sealed materials, on November 9, 2022. The Court’s request to review the record indicates a heightened interest in the case, but does not necessarily mean that the justices will agree to hear the case.

Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death in 2011 for the murder of his neighbor, Bianca Maldonado Hernandez. He has consistently maintained his innocence of the killing. In state post-conviction proceedings, his lawyers presented evidence that the DNA analysis and testimony of witnesses from the since-disbanded Austin crime lab that was used to convict him was false and unreliable. At that time, Tarrant County prosecutors opposed Escobar’s efforts to win a new trial. However, after the Tarrant County post-conviction court found that the false scientific evidence had rendered Escobar’s trial “fundamentally unfair” and recommended a new trial be granted, the District Attorney’s office reviewed its position on Escobar’s claims and also concluded that a new trial was appropriate. Despite the agreement of county prosecutors that Escobar’s due process rights had been violated, the TCCA rejected the trial court’s recommendation and refused to grant him relief.

Several noteworthy groups of fair-justice advocates have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the Supreme Court in support of Escobar’s petition. On July 26, 2022, The Innocence Network and The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, Inc. filed a joint brief on behalf of Escobar asking the justices to summarily reverse the TCCA’s ruling. Two days later, the American Bar Association and a group of seven former state attorneys general, United States Attorneys, and state prosecutors also filed amicus briefs in support of Escobar.

Escobar was charged with raping and murdering 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.

Trial prosecutors had no evidence of any pre-existing relationship between Escobar and Maldonado, and no eyewitnesses placed Escobar at the crime scene. As a result, they relied heavily on the forensic evidence, which they told the jury was a “key piece” of the puzzle proving Escobar’s guilt. At a court hearing during Escobar’s appeals, a juror told the court how essential the forensic evidence was. “I was sitting on the fence, if you will, as to whether he was guilty or not guilty all the way up to when the DNA evidence was submitted to the jury and, for me, that was the sealing factor,” the juror said. The forensic evidence purportedly showed through both fingerprint and DNA analysis that Escobar had likely been at the crime scene and had come into contact with the victim. This DNA evidence was collected and analyzed by the Austin Police Department DNA Lab (APD Lab).

In 2016, after a full audit, the APD Lab was shuttered for multiple, serious errors in its forensic testing. The errors were so severe that county-wide, criminal judges signed a letter to the city council and the county commissioner’s court stating that “[t]he problems discovered raise questions about every determination made by the lab.” One of the analysts from the APD Lab who continued to defend the debunked methods used by the lab even after she was informed that the protocols were not scientifically supportable had conducted the DNA testing in Escobar’s case, drawing a direct line between these faulty methods and the conclusions presented to his jury.

Escobar’s lawyers filed for state habeas review of his case after the results of this audit had been released. The TCCA issued an order directing the trial court to conduct a hearing and make recommendations on addressing Escobar’s claims. Saying it would be “shocking to the conscience to uphold the conviction of Mr. Escobar,” the trial court recommended a new trial.

After Escobar presented evidence of the false forensic testimony, Tarrant County prosecutors agreed with the defense that the conviction was should be overturned. In a media interview, Garza explained that, “Although it is the instinct of every district attorney to defend convictions, our job is to see that justice is done.” He objected to some of the trial court findings, but submitted a brief to the TCCA agreeing that Escobar was entitled to a new trial. Despite the agreement of the parties, the TCCA issued an unpublished per curiam opinion that denied Escobar relief and never mentioned the prosecution’s concession of error. Tarrant County prosecutors filed a motion with the TCCA reiterating their position and requesting that the TCCA reconsider its ruling or at least issue an opinion explaining its decision. The TCCA summarily denied the motion, setting the stage for Escobar’s Supreme Court appeal.

Sources

Read Escobar’s peti­tion to the Supreme Court here.

Read Texas’s response in sup­port of Escobar’s peti­tion here.

Adam Liptak, A Prosecutor’s Change of Heart in a Capital Case at the Supreme Court, N.Y. Times, Oct. 242022