WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday revived claims by a Texas inmate who has the rare support of the state prosecutor's office that put him on death row.
The justices threw out a Texas appeals court ruling that refused to grant the inmate, Areli Escobar, a new trial. The state appeals court had overruled a lower court judge who documented the flaws in the forensic evidence used to convict Escobar.
The high court's action returns the case to the appeals court.
Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death in the May 2009 fatal stabbing and sexual assault of Bianca Maldonado, a 17-year-old high school student in Austin. They lived in the same apartment complex.
The focus of the prosecution case against Escobar was evidence from the Austin Police Department's DNA lab.
But a later audit turned up problems at the lab that led Judge David Wahlberg of the Travis County District Court to conclude that Escobar's trial was unfair.
“The State’s use of unreliable, false, or misleading DNA evidence to secure (Escobar's) conviction violated fundamental concepts of justice,” Wahlberg wrote.
When the case returned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Travis County prosecutors no longer were defending the conviction. Voters had elected a new district attorney, Jose Garza, who ran on a promise to hold police accountable in Austin, the state capital and county seat.
But the appeals court refused to go along, saying it had conducted its own review that justified affirming the conviction and sentence, and not mentioning the prosecution's change of position. Even after Garza's office pointed out it was no longer standing behind the conviction, the appeals court stuck with its ruling.
In its filing with the Supreme Court, Garza's office wrote that prosecutors have a duty to see justice done and that the appeals court “undermined the District Attorney’s historical role in the criminal justice system.”
Escobar's lawyers, unsurprisingly, agreed, telling the court that their case is so clear, the justices could reverse the appellate ruling without hearing arguments.
“If ever there were a case calling for summary reversal, it is this capital case. Denying the petition would be a grave miscarriage of justice,” they wrote.