The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision denying relief to Areli Escobar, who was convicted and sentenced to death based on what prosecutors admit was “flawed and misleading forensic evidence.”
In 2020, the Travis County district court overturned Mr. Escobar’s conviction for the 2009 rape and murder of a young woman in his apartment complex, ruling that it relied heavily on “scientifically unreliable” DNA evidence from the Austin Police Department’s crime lab.
That lab was forced to shut down in 2016 after the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that it lacked properly trained staff and was using improper testing procedures and outdated mixtures and methods to analyze DNA evidence.
The trial court in Mr. Escobar’s case found the lab’s “failure to adhere to scientifically accepted practices” was widespread. The lab’s results were undermined by confirmation bias and tainted by its failure to prevent or detect contamination of samples.
After taking office in 2021, Travis County District Attorney José Garza reviewed the forensic evidence in Mr. Escobar’s case. His team of lawyers determined that the jury had depended on “misleading and inaccurate” evidence to convict Mr. Escobar, and he agreed in filings at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that a new trial is required.
Despite the prosecutor’s concession, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court and denied Mr. Escobar a new trial.
Mr. Escobar appealed to the Supreme Court, where he argued that the state appellate court “stepped outside of the judicial role by sustaining the conviction on the basis of arguments no party made, reaching a result no party advocated, and in the process took upon itself the role of the prosecutor to decide whether the evidence was reliable enough to warrant the State convicting and executing petitioner.”
On January 9, the Court granted Mr. Escobar’s petition for review, vacated the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’s judgment, and ordered that court to reconsider the case “in light of the confession of error by Texas.”
Calling it “an important day for justice,” Mr. Garza noted that the prosecutor, defense, and trial court all agree that Mr. Escobar needs a new trial.
“It is undeniable that the jury in this case was told things that ended up not being accurate,” Mr. Garza said. “We believe it’s really important for someone accused of a crime to have a jury that has access to complete and accurate facts. We’re hopeful that the Court of Criminal Appeals will share that perspective and review the facts of this case.”
Mr. Escobar is one of six people currently under death sentences from Travis County, and Mr. Garza said that prosecutors relied on faulty evidence in at least one other case besides Mr. Escobar’s case.