Jurisprudence

SCOTUS Unanimously Sides With Death Row Inmate Over an Extreme Texas Court

Even this conservative supermajority understood that a forensic lab’s egregious misconduct demands a new trial.

The Supreme Court plaza in the sun.
The U.S. Supreme Court. Oliver Contreras/Getty Images

The Supreme Court confronted an astounding violation of due process on Monday in a case that never should have reached it in the first place. With no dissents, the justices vacated a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that upheld Areli Escobar’s death sentence—even though prosecutors admitted that Escobar’s conviction relied on false and unreliable DNA evidence. Prosecutors requested a new trial, yet the Texas court refused to grant one. So SCOTUS had to step in to demand a do-over.

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It’s really no surprise that the all-Republican justices of the Texas court thought they could get away with this abdication of their most basic duties. After all, SCOTUS’ conservative supermajority has consistently upheld capital sentences in the face of shocking, unrefuted evidence that they violated the Constitution. So long as this bloc takes a rigidly hostile position toward defendants in every capital case, lower courts will continue to push the limits, greenlighting executions that are both unconstitutional and unconscionable.

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The facts of Escobar’s case offer a disturbing glimpse into how prosecutors’ relentless drive for a conviction overrides the search for truth. It began with the gruesome, tragic sexual assault and murder of a 17-year-old in 2009. The victim was found alone, stabbed to death and covered in blood, with no signs of forced entry; there were no eyewitnesses. Police identified Escobar as a person of interest after his ex-girlfriend claimed that she had called him repeatedly around the time of the crime and heard sexual noises followed by screaming. The morning of the murder, Escobar arrived at his mother’s house injured, with blood on his clothes, saying he had gotten into a fight.

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Prosecutors indicted Escobar and sent evidence to the Austin Police Department’s DNA laboratory. The lawyers later told the jury that this evidence strongly implicated Escobar. The suspect “could not be excluded” as a match to DNA found on the victim’s doorknob lock, the state attorneys declared. Moreover, the victim “could not be excluded” as a match to DNA found on Escobar’s shoes, jeans, and shirt. Finally, a forensic examiner testified that a low-quality print on a lotion bottle next to the victim’s body was “identical” to Escobar’s left ring-finger joint. This evidence had a powerful effect; one juror later admitted that he was “on the fence” about the defendant’s guilt until prosecutors introduced the DNA samples. The jury found Escobar guilty, and the judge sentenced him to death.

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Then the state’s case fell apart. In 2016 the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that APD’s DNA lab had engaged in egregious, systemic misconduct. Inadequate training and oversight of analysts led to continual cross-contamination of evidence and misinterpretation of results. The analysts constantly violated scientific best practices and twisted their work to implicate a particular suspect. A court found that no DNA evidence connected to the lab was reliable, and Texas soon shuttered it.

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These errors infected every aspect of Escobar’s case. The analyst who tested his shoes and shirt was involved in at least nine cross-contamination incidents that affected more than 30 cases; she routinely forgot to wear gloves during testing. The analyst who swabbed the victim’s doorknob lock and studied blood at the crime scene had a similar record of contamination, as well as a history of using unscientific methods to interpret results. These analysts also failed to seal evidence (causing it to spill out of bags in transit) and intermingled crime scene samples with Escobar’s belongings. These mistakes exponentially heightened the risk of DNA cross-contamination.

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Other lab employees who collected evidence from the crime scene had a record of malfeasance too. One consistently mislabeled, lost, or intentionally damaged evidence and consumed alcohol on call. Another failed to properly package crime scene evidence, causing it to spill out and become contaminated with other DNA. This employee later resigned after the lab discovered that she had falsified her job application and committed perjury. The jury knew none of this; rather, it was told that the lab was rigorous and reliable.

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That wasn’t all. The fingerprint specialist who testified that Escobar’s print was “identical” to one found by the victim? She had initially found that Escobar was not a match. She changed her conclusion midtrial, after a prosecutor sent her a message expressing his belief that the prints were a match, without explaining what had changed her analysis.

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And Escobar’s ex-girlfriend? She initially attested that she had merely heard sounds of consensual sex when she called Escobar the morning of the murder. That day, she told at least four different people that she thought she heard him “cheating” with another woman over the phone. As the investigation zeroed in on Escobar, her story evolved to become more incriminating. By the time she testified at trial two years later, she said she’d heard “screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming” on the other end of the phone.

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Following revelations about the crime lab, Escobar argued that his conviction was unconstitutional. A Texas district court agreed, finding that “it would be shocking to the conscience to uphold” the sentence because it was “fundamentally unfair” in violation of due process. The district court also concluded that “false DNA evidence” likely “affected the judgment of the jury.” Then the case reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court for criminal cases in the state. By this point, José Garza had been elected Travis County district attorney. Garza had run as a progressive prosecutor eager to reform law enforcement and pursue justice rather than a conviction at all costs. After reviewing the case, Garza told the court that his office supported a new trial for Escobar.

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals didn’t care. In a short, unsigned opinion, the court—made up of nine Republican justices—spurned the district court’s factual findings. It instead conducted its “own review” and decided that the conviction should stand without acknowledging prosecutors’ belief that Escobar deserved a new trial. Garza was so flummoxed that he decided that the court must have “misunderstood” his position. He filed a petition clarifying his endorsement of a new trial and requesting further briefing plus a new opinion. The court denied it without comment.

This intransigence forced Escobar to ask the Supreme Court for relief. In a rare move, Garza encouraged the justices to clear away the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision. And on Monday they did just that, directing the lower court to reconsider its decision “for further consideration in light of the confession of error by Texas.” The order sends a strong signal that the Constitution requires the state to conduct a new trial.

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As obvious as this move may seem, it was no guarantee. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals defied SCOTUS in 2019 and got away with it just last year. It’s not alone. Since Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett have been confirmed, lower courts have rubber-stamped convictions, especially in capital cases, that shock the conscience just as much as Escobar’s. Consider, for instance, Andre Lee Thomas and Kristopher Love, two Black men convicted by openly racist and virulently bigoted jurors. Or Terence Andrus, another Black man, whose wildly incompetent lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence that probably would have saved his life. Or Barry Lee Jones, who was denied the opportunity to prove that he is almost certainly innocent. The Supreme Court authorized all these men to be killed. Lower courts see these decisions and decide to take them a step further.

Until SCOTUS reins in this pro-death activism, it will continue to facilitate these grievous injustices. And the vast majority of victims will not have the benefit of a progressive prosecutor like Garza to help them make their case. Escobar’s victory is heartening, no doubt. But it is remarkable chiefly because this Supreme Court so rarely respects the rights of equally deserving defendants.

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