On May 31, 2009, 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado was found dead in an Austin, Texas, apartment she shared with her mother and sister. She had been stabbed 43 times and cut 30 times with two different sharp instruments. Her infant son was in the apartment at the time but suffered no injuries. There were no signs of forced entry into the apartment or any eyewitnesses to the crime.
Austin Police Department homicide detectives collected numerous items of evidence at the crime scene.
Ariel Escobar, who lived in the same apartment complex in a unit he shared with his two sisters and their children, became a suspect in the murder almost immediately.
On the morning of the Maldonado murder, Escobar’s girlfriend called him on his cell phone, at which time she heard screaming and sounds she believed were sex noises. The girlfriend knew Escobar was still at the apartment complex because she had seen his vehicle parked minutes earlier. This call was during the same time when Maldonado was murdered.
Approximately one hour later, Escobar showed up at his mother’s apartment in another part of the city. He was injured, and his clothes were bloody. He changed while his mother washed the bloody clothes. He told his mother he had been in a fight.
A short time later, Escobar met with his sister’s boyfriend, telling him first that he had “fucked up some woman” but quickly changed the story that he fought with some “asshole” in response to bruises on his face.
Almost simultaneously, there were text messages exchanged between Escobar’s girlfriend and his sisters about their concerns that he had “raped” a woman.
APD detectives conducted six different searches against Escobar—four of which were at his apartment and his mother’s apartment, including the seizure of samples of Escobar’s head and pubic hairs; scrapings and clippings of his fingernails; buccal and penile samples; and an epithelial sample. The other two searches were conducted on a vehicle driven by Escobar and his cell phone.
On June 3, 2009, Escobar was arrested in connection with the Maldonado murder. He was later indicted for capital murder. Following a three-week trial in May 2011, Escobar was convicted and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors during the trial relied almost exclusively on DNA evidence presented by analysts and experts with the APD’s DNA lab, a unit of the department’s Forensic Science Division. Their testimony, through blood evidence and other questionable evidence, implicitly placed Escobar in Maldonado’s apartment at the time of her murder.
To shore up the DNA evidence, the prosecution presented circumstantial evidence through Escobar girlfriend about the sounds she heard on his open cell phone line at the time of the murder and her text messages indicating a belief that he had raped a woman.
In 2016, the DNA evidence upon which Escobar’s conviction was primarily based was called into question after the APD shut down the DNA unit following an audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
That audit found four critical areas of deficiency that resulted in the DNA lab’s closure:
- Use of protocols by the lab that were not generally accepted by the scientific community.
- Internal policies that could have allowed confirmation bias in data interpretation.
- A likely instance of DNA contamination.
- Use of expired materials related to testing.
In light of these developments, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), on October 18, 2017, instructed the Travis County trial court to conduct a habeas corpus hearing to determine the reliability of the forensic evidence used to convict Escobar.
More than two years later, Travis County Criminal Court Judge David Walberg recommended to the CCA that Escobar be granted a new trial based on incorrect DNA analysis of evidence in the case by the ADP DNA lab.
The judge specifically found that the district attorney’s office in place at the time of Escobar’s prosecution suppressed lab reports that would have cast doubts on the testimony of the DNA experts who testified at his trial. The expert witness gave the jury the false impression that the lab followed accepted scientific methods.
Judge Walberg concluded that this suppression violated Escobar’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and rendered his trial “fundamentally unfair.”
As the evidence mounted that an injustice had been done, current Travis County District Attorney Jose P. Garza, whose office inherited the Escobar case when he was elected DA in 2020, joined with Escobar’s attorneys in their efforts to have the CCA accept Judge Walberg’s recommendation for a new trial in the case.
On January 26, 2022, the CCA rejected Judge Walberg’s recommendation that Escobar be granted a new trial. The appeals court found that evidence material to innocence had been suppressed, but that the suppression did not warrant a new trial because the prosecution had presented sufficient “other evidence” to establish guilt. The Court explained their logic by saying, “[f]alse testimony is “material” only if there is a “reasonable likelihood” that it affected the judgment of the jury…Due to the combined strength of this evidence, Applicant has failed to show a reasonable likelihood that the challenged testimony affected the jury’s judgment.”
The Escobar case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. DA Garza has taken the extraordinary step of filing a 39-page brief supporting a new trial in the Escobar case.
The District Attorney informed the high court:
“… the State agrees that [Escobar] has established that the State’s flawed and misleading DNA testimony affected the judgment of the jury, and the CCA’s decision represented an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence in the record of the proceeding.”
District Attorney Garza’s efforts to see that justice is served in the Escobar case have been joined by the American Bar Association; the Innocence Network and Center For Integrity in Forensic Sciences; and Former State Attorney Generals, United States Attorneys, and Prosecutors with amicus curiae briefs (here, here and here).
The State of Texas has a recent and a past history of executing people based on flawed forensic evidence.
On August 17, 2022, the State of Texas executed Kosul Chanthakoummane based on flawed forensic evidence. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham based on flawed forensic evidence—evidence that would later show to have resulted in the execution of an actually innocent Willingham.
Whether or not Ariel Escobar is guilty is for a jury to decide based on reliable and credible evidence—not flawed, deliberately misleading forensic evidence.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will see the Escobar case in the same vein.