Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Liberating turn in coastal bend saga: Hannah Overton free on bail

A trial judge ordered Hannah Overton released on bail yesterday after spending five years in prison for allegedly poisoning her foster son with salt. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in September overturned her conviction but a bail hearing was ordered because the DA has said he will seek a new trial. Members of her church congregation covered a $50,000 bond. See coverage from:
The DA may want a second bite at the apple but thanks to developments described well in the Texas Monthly story (a key state witness switched sides), it seems increasingly unlikely that will happen.

In many ways, Overton's case was the turning point when the Court of Criminal Appeals began to openly acknowledge the weaknesses in the law that spurred the Legislature to create Texas' new junk science writ and the CCA to interpret it so that it affects bad scientists, not just changing science. In a statement accompany an order for an evidentiary hearing in Overton's case in 2012, Judge Cathy Cochran wrote:
This disconnect between changing science and reliable verdicts that can stand the test of time has grown in recent years as the speed with which new science and revised scientific methodologies debunk what had formerly been thought of as reliable forensic science has increased. The potential problem of relying on today's science in a criminal trial (especially to determine an essential element such as criminal causation or the identity of the perpetrator) is that tomorrow's science sometimes changes and, based upon that changed science, the former verdict may look inaccurate, if not downright ludicrous. But the convicted person is still imprisoned. Given the facts viewed in the fullness of time, today's public may reasonably perceive that the criminal justice system is sometimes unjust and inaccurate. Finality of judgment is essential in criminal cases, but so is accuracy of the result--an accurate result that will stand the test of time and changes in scientific knowledge.

Id. The problem in this case, as in Robbins, is not that the science itself has evolved, but that it is alleged that the scientific testimony at the original trial was not fully informed and did not take into account all of the scientific evidence now available 
That was precisely the argument Cochran and Co. finally won 5-4 just before Thanksgiving in Ex Parte Robbins II. Ironically, though Overton's case helped spur the Lege to create the new junk science writ, she did not end up benefiting from it. In the end, her habeas writ rested on two grounds: Ineffective assistance of counsel and exculpatory evidence allegedly withheld by prosecutors. The CCA in September granted the IAC claim without ruling on prosecutor misconduct allegations, a result which eventually led to Overton's bail hearing and release this week.

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