Saturday, March 01, 2014

Texas' new junk science writ called 'elegant' and 'phenomenally important'

The Atlantic has a story ("In Texas, a New Law Lets Defendants Fight Bad Science," Feb. 28) about SB 344 by Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, which created a procedure to challenge convictions based on junk science via the habeas corpus process.  The article concludes:
Mike Snedeker, president of the non-profit National Center for Reason and Justice, described the new law as “elegant and straightforward, and “phenomenally important,” not the least because it clarifies and builds on existing due process rights. In theory, defendants should always be able to bring a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds of new information; in practice, however, outside of cases involving DNA evidence, it’s difficult to do this.

“You could say that the principles it embodies are already part of the federal constitution, but that’s sort of a fuzzy document and the judges that enforce it are distant… They don’t have nearly the credibility that a law passed by your own state has,” said Snedeker. “[The law] makes it clearer, it makes it definite, not an arguable constitutional principle, but rather it’s a state statute that clearly describes when and how you can challenge a conviction based on evidence we now know to be wrong.”

The new statute offers another kind of clarity: “It’s important because a lot of really shaky evidence is clothed in objectivity,” said Snedeker, noting the incalculable impact expert testimony can have on a juror’s decision-making—especially expert testimony characterized as scientific or medical. “Our priests now are scientists, doctors,” said Snedeker. By giving defendants a way to question the sacrosanctity of scientific testimony, the court recognizes that science and medicine are mutable and continually evolving. ...

There is, however, one important thing the new statute can’t do: keep bad science out of the courtroom in the first place. Expert witnesses can still draw dubious conclusions about blood spatter patterns, employ much-contested approaches like dog scent line-ups, or try to divine an alleged arsonist’s intentions based on “crazed glass” patterns in windows. This makes Keith Hampton, a lawyer for the Kellers who used the statute in their habeas corpus writ, only cautiously optimistic about the new law. “A junk science bill that I would get most excited about is the one that prevents junk from coming into the court room in the first place,” he said. “And this absolutely does not, that’s plain. It’s put in the post-conviction chapter in the code of criminal procedure.”

But Snedeker is nevertheless hopeful that the law will influence how cases look in the future. “I think it will definitely make prosecutors think twice,” he said.

And ultimately, he’s impressed: “I’m just stunned, [because] I never thought there would be a time in my life when Texas would be a beacon of legal progress.”
Go here to view written testimony submitted by your correspondent to the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas in support of SB 344.


Anonymous said...

Scott, here's a good subject for you to do about the cops in Texas:

Anonymous said...

If it's science, it's junk.