That United States Supreme Court has requested the submission of the record of appeals 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 even though district prosecutors agreed that he used flawed forensic evidence a discredited condemn crime laboratory Areli Escobar (pictured) denied him a fair trial.
Travis County Prosecutors have taken the rare step of filing a letter of reply in support of Escobar’s request for a certificate of issue, asking that the court review his case and overturn his conviction. On September 28, 2022 Travis County District Attorney Jose P. Garza conceded in the prosecutor’s brief that “the state had presented erroneous and misleading forensic evidence at the petitioner’s trial, and that evidence was essential to the outcome of his case, in violation of the well-defined federal due process statute.” Garza wrote that “the state agrees with the petitioner that this court should reverse the proceedings summarily.” [TCCA’s] Decision or alternatively grant the application and put this case up for discussion.”
Escobar’s case has been circulated to conference judges three times since the briefing concluded on October 11, 2022. After the court’s Oct. 28, 2022 conference, the judges requested the TCCA to transmit the case record to the court. The case record shows that on November 9, 2022, the court received an electronic record of the case, including sealed materials. The court’s request to review the records indicates an increased interest in the case, but doesn’t necessarily mean the judges will agree to hear the case.
Escobar was sentenced to death in 2011 for the murder of his neighbor Bianca Maldonado Hernandez. He has consistently maintained his innocence in the killing. In post-conviction state trials, his attorneys presented evidence that the DNA analysis and testimonies from the now-defunct Austin crime lab used to convict him were incorrect and unreliable. At the time, Tarrant County prosecutors resisted Escobar’s efforts to win a new trial. However, after the Tarrant County trial found that the false scientific evidence rendered Escobar’s trial “fundamentally unfair” and recommended a new trial, the district attorney’s office reviewed its position on Escobar’s allegations and also concluded that a new trial be appropriate . Despite the district attorneys’ agreement that Escobar’s right to due process had been violated, the TCCA denied the court’s recommendation and refused to grant him relief.
Several notable groups of fair justice advocates have filed briefs with 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 judges to summary reverse the TCCA’s decision. Two days later, the American Bar Association and a group of seven former attorneys general, United States attorneys and prosecutors also filed amicus briefs in support of Escobar.
Escobar was accused of raping and murdering 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado, who was stabbed 47 times. Prosecutors produced DNA, shoeprint and fingerprint analysis from the Austin Police Department’s crime lab that allegedly identified Escobar as the attacker. They also produced testimony from Escobar’s ex-girlfriend that she allegedly received a cellphone call in which she heard a woman scream repeatedly over the course of ten minutes while she was being raped – although the friend initially only told investigators that she had heard that Escobar had “consensual sex” with a woman.
Prosecutors at the trial had no evidence of a pre-existing relationship between Escobar and Maldonado, and no eyewitnesses attached Escobar to 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 that proved Escobar’s guilt. At a court hearing during Escobar’s appeals, a jury told the court the importance of forensic evidence. “I sat on the fence, if you will, as to whether he was guilty or not guilty until the DNA evidence was presented to the jury, and for me that was the sealing factor,” the juror said. The forensic evidence allegedly 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 Laboratory (APD Lab).
In 2016, after a full audit, the APD lab was shut down due to multiple serious flaws in its forensic testing. The errors were so serious that criminal judges from across the county signed a letter to the city council and the county court that said: ”
Escobar’s attorneys requested a state review of his case after the results of that review were released. The TCCA issued an order directing the trial court to conduct a hearing and make recommendations for the settlement of Escobar’s claims. The trial court said it would be “a shock to conscience to uphold Mr Escobar’s conviction” and recommended a new trial.
After Escobar presented evidence supporting the false forensic statements, Tarrant County prosecutors agreed with the defense that the conviction should be vacated. In a media interview, Garza stated, “While it is every prosecutor’s instinct to defend convictions, it is our job to ensure justice.” He contested some of the findings of the trial, but submitted a brief to the TCCA, in which he agreed Escobar was entitled to a new trial. Despite the parties’ agreement, the TCCA issued an unpublished one Per curia Statement denying Escobar’s relief and never mentioning the prosecution’s admission of error. Tarrant County prosecutors filed a motion with the TCCA, reiterating their position and asking the TCCA to reconsider its decision or at least issue an opinion justifying its decision. The TCCA summarily denied the motion, setting the stage for an appeal to the Escobar Supreme Court.