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Junk Science Causing Wrongful Convictions in Texas: Will New 2013 Habeas Corpus Law Help Those Wrongfully Convicted in Texas?

This Friday, the Texas Forensic Science Commission is meeting down in Austin, and one the big topics that will be on the table there will be  the big, big problem of “junk science” being used by Texas prosecutors to get convictions against people – wrongful convictions.  The TFSC has also issued its 200+ page 2013 Annual Report – and you can read it here.

 

Part of their discussion is going to involve a new law on the books to help defense attorneys fight prosecutions and wrongful convictions based upon junk science. However, there’s much more to be done to stop bad science from being used by state attorneys as legitimate evidence to build the state’s case against someone and it will be interesting to see what results from the discussions later this week.

Many of Texas’ criminal defense lawyers are extremely interested in the results of this meeting, since they have seen firsthand how unreliable forensic evidence can be, and have been aware for a long time that scientific evidence provided by prosecutors isn’t to be trusted merely because it comes labelled as “scientific” in some way.

What is “Junk Science”?

In criminal proceedings, junk science is any scientific evidence that is used in a criminal trial which is faked or fraudulent or otherwise untrustworthy and unreliable. One big example of “junk science” being used to wrongfully convict people in Texas courtrooms are the thousands of cases using laboratory evidence provided by Houston Crime Lab technician Jonathan Salvador which has been shown to be worthless. (For more on the Jonathan Salvador situation, read the official report issued jointly by the Texas Rangers, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General here.)

The New 2013 Law Allowing Defense Lawyers to Challenge Junk Science with Habeas Corpus Writs

On September 1, 2013, a new law became effective here in Texas designed to combat junk science problems in Texas criminal cases. This new law, technically, involves criminal procedure during a criminal case. It allows for the defendant to file an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus based on relevant scientific evidence.

An Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus is filed to ask the court to grant relief from unlawful detention or imprisonment. It can be filed before trial or sentencing, or it can be filed with an appellate court post-conviction.

The new law allows Texas judges to overturn convictions upon a showing that forensic evidence used to get a conviction is bad forensic science or “junk science.” It makes the process much easier for defendants trying to get justice in a case where they have been convicted based upon discredited, untrustworthy scientific proof. If their Habeas Corpus request is granted, the court can order another trial where the discredited “junk science” evidence cannot be used by the prosecution.

Prosecutors were not pleased with this new Habeas Corpus legislation; it was their position that the appellate process was adequate to address these issues and that the reason Applications for Writs of Habeas Corpus had been hard to accomplish was because the statutes were trying to stop defendants from having too many bites at the apple and to thwart the frivolous filings by criminal defendants.

Injustice in Texas Based Upon Junk Science Forensic Evidence Has Been Happening for Years

The cruel reality that prosecutors in Texas have presented forensic evidence that is not reliable and obtained conviction after conviction is well known among prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

In 2000, Governor George W. Bush pardoned a man named Roy Criner after it was shown that DNA evidence existed which suggested that Mr. Criner was innocent of the rape and murder for which he had been sentenced to 99 years.

Cameron Todd Willingham was shown to have been convicted on shoddy, false “arson” evidence, which sadly was determined too late to stop his execution by the State of Texas in 2004.

Over the years, Texas has had more exonerations based upon DNA evidence than any other state according to the National Innocence Project.

 

The New Habeas Corpus Law Seems To Be Working

The new Habeas Corpus law, effective only a few months ago, already shows signs of being a real tool for righting wrongs for criminal defendants in Texas.  Consider these two recent examples:

1. The San Antonio Four

In Bexar County, the case of the “San Antonio Four” is being heralded as one of the first examples of the new Texas Habeas Corpus Junk Science law being successfully implemented for justice.

The San Antonio Four, four women convicted in 1994 of sexually assaulting two minor girls, have non-DNA junk science cases, and are currently freed from being behind bars although they remain in the system because their cases have not been formally overturned, and they have not been exonerated. A Bexar County Judge must recommend to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that their convictions should be tossed (and there are some other issues here, too) — if this happens, and the CCA acts accordingly, then the women may have civil wrongful conviction claims.

2. Sonia Cary

Sonia Cary is also proceeding on a junk science challenge against her murder/arson conviction, where she was found guilty of burning her uncle to death in a house fire, after Cary’s case was one of several cases reviewed by the state fire marshal and found to have flawed forensic evidentiary support. The new Habeas Corpus law is being used by the Innocence Project of Texas on Sonia Cary’s behalf, arguing that forensic experts at her trial played around with evidence to falsely claim there was gasoline used at the fire.

 


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