This past November, we posted a blog about the death penalty conviction of Ariel Escobar, who was sitting on Texas’ death row at the time, awaiting execution.
Escobar was convicted for the May 31, 2009, rape and murder of 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado in an apartment in Austin, Texas. Escobar lived in the same apartment complex at the time of the killing.
Escobar was arrested on June 3, 2009, in connection with the Maldonado slaying. Six years later (May 2011), a jury convicted Escobar and sentenced him to death.
Prosecutors at the trial relied almost exclusively on DNA evidence presented by analysts and experts with the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab, a unit of the department’s Forensic Science Division. Their testimony placed Escobar in Maldonado’s apartment at the time of her murder.
In 2016, that DNA evidence was called into question after the DNA unit was shut down by the APD following an audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The audit found that the DNA lab had contaminated evidence, used testing protocols not accepted by the scientific community, and followed internal policies that allowed testing of tainted evidence.
On October 18, 2017, in light of these revelations, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) instructed the Travis County trial court to conduct a habeas corpus hearing to determine the reliability of the forensic evidence used to convict Escobar.
In December 2021, Travis County Criminal District Court David Walberg issued factual and legal conclusions to the CCA recommending that Escobar be granted a new trial because his 2011 conviction was fundamentally flawed.
Current Travis County District Attorney Jose P. Garza inherited the Escobar case after his election in November 2020. His office conducted its review of the Escobar case. As the evidence mounted that an injustice had been done, he joined Escobar’s attorneys urging the CCA to accept Judge Walberg’s recommendation and order a new trial.
On January 26, 2022, the CCA rejected that recommendation by Judge Walberg. The appeals court found that Escobar had failed to show that favorable evidence had been suppressed. The Court went further, saying that even if they accepted the premise that evidence material to innocence had been suppressed, the suppression did not warrant a new trial because prosecutors had presented “other evidence” to establish guilt.
District Attorney Garza joined Escobar’s attorneys again by filing a 39-page petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the CCA decision and order a new trial.
On January 9, 2023, with a man’s life hanging in the balance, the Supreme Court vacated the CCA’s decision and instructed the state court to take a second look at the case.
Escobar’s attorney, Benjamin Wolff, who is the director of the Office of Capital and Forensics, had these significant observations for the Texas Tribune in the wake of the Supreme Court decision:
“The trial court, the defense and the prosecution all agree that Mr. Escobar should not have been convicted because evidence used to convict was entirely unreliable. Thankfully, the Supreme Court stepped in and recognized that, in a death penalty case, it matters when the state can no longer support a case.”
Saying the Supreme Court decision was “an important day for justice,” DA Garza told the Tribune that:
“It is undeniable that the jury in this case was told things that ended up not being accurate. 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 hope that the Court of Criminal Appeals will share that perspective and review the facts of this case.”
There is no guarantee that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will fairly “review the facts of the case.” Roxanna Asgarian, the writer of the June 9, 2023, Tribune report, pointed to the contentious history the CCA has with the Supreme Court in such cases:
“It’s rare in Texas for the prosecution to reverse course in these types of high-profile cases, even when new evidence is found. In such cases, though the Court of Criminal Appeals has at least once failed to be swayed. Bobby Moore, another death row inmate, was twice found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty – and was supported in that case by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. After the first Supreme Court ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again found Moore eligible for execution; he was granted parole in 2020 after the second, more forceful Supreme Court ruling was issued in 2019.”
Justice is an elusive concept. It is never cut-and-dry. There are rough edges and soft contours that shape the concept in every case. For example, Bobby Moore went from being a “worst of the worst” murderer in 2019 to being a candidate for parole in 2020.
Facts alone do not always determine a “just” outcome in a case. There was other evidence—whether or not that evidence was “sufficient,” as the CCA concluded in 2022—that Ariel Escobar did brutally rape and murder Bianca Maldonado. But the contaminated DNA evidence upon which the prosecution primarily relied to prove guilt legally undermined whatever factual sufficiency the “other evidence” may have had.
Hopefully, the law will prevail in the Escobar case as it did in the Bobby Moore case.