Thursday, October 11, 2018

El Paso 'shaken baby' conviction latest capital case challenged under TX's junk science writ

Texas' junk science writ continues to impact high-profile capital cases, this time causing re-evaluation of faddish "shaken-baby" science, which in recent years has come under fire. An El Paso judge recommended a new trial for Rigoberto Avila, declaring scientific testimony against him in his case "false and misleading." Now the Court of Criminal Appeals must decide his fate. Reported the Texas Tribune:
“The new scientific evidence creates a compelling case for Mr. Avila’s innocence, and a judge has now found that the verdict against him rests on false and misleading testimony,” Avila’s attorneys, Cathryn Crawford and Rob Owen, said in an emailed statement. "After spending 17 years on death row – and facing four serious execution dates – for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Avila is anxious to present the reliable scientific evidence to a jury.” 
In August, podcast co-host Mandy Marzullo and I discussed how the junk-science writ has impacted death-penalty cases, and this story adds more context to that discussion.

The combination of Texas' Forensic Science Commission's work - along with the state's early adoption of the junk-science writ - has put the state at the bleeding edge of efforts to challenge faulty forensics. We have both a dedicated body charged with critiquing bad forensics and a legal means to challenge them that doesn't exist in other states. (Texas' near-term leadership on forensic reform was cemented after the Trump Administration nixed national USDOJ initiatives to update and improve modern forensics.)

In Texas, capital cases are the one sliver of indigent defendants whose appeals are all paid for by the state, meaning those defendants have access to attorneys to file a state habeas corpus writ. So it makes sense that many of the most high-profile, early uses of the junk-science writ would come in death-penalty cases. By contrast, plea the case to life without parole, and a defendant accused of the same crime with the same evidence would have no access to an attorney at the habeas corpus stage.

That's why the junk-science writ is being used disproportionately in capital cases. It's not that faulty evidence wasn't used to secure other convictions. It's that those other folks don't have access to attorneys or experts to challenge the false evidence.

The Daubert and Frye standards used by the courts have utterly failed to keep junk science out of Texas or American courtrooms on the front end. In the long run, Grits' hope is that the junk-science writ provides a back-door means to challenge shoddy forensics, and that, once discredited, courts will stop using that evidence going forward. That's what happened with scent lineups (using police dogs), and to me it looks like the most likely path for eliminating bad forensics in an era when judicial gatekeepers have utterly and profoundly failed us on the front end.


Debbie said...

Avila is not a "shaken baby" case. The accusation was that he stomped on a toddler and fatally injured the child's liver--much different from the shaken baby scenario, in which there's often doubt whether trauma to the head/brain came from a blow or a shake--or from prior illness having nothing to do with blunt-force trauma. In Avila, there was no doubt about severe blunt-force trauma--the doubt raised post-conviction was whether Avila caused the fatal injury to the child's LIVER, or whether the victim's four-year-old brother did so, by jumping onto the todder from a piece of furniture. Definitely a "junk science" case, however.

Debbie said...

To finish the thought: Avila includes junk science because a doctor at trial gave expert testimony that only an adult-sized person could have caused blunt-force trauma sufficient to fatally injure the child victim. Post conviction, Avila's attorney presented evidence that a small child jumping on the toddler could also have caused fatal injury to the iiver, and the evidence was that this jumping indeed had happened shortly before the victim died.

Anonymous said...

If I was ever wrongly convicted of murder, I'd rather get a death sentence than life. Not because death is better than life in prison. Because your odds of getting your conviction overturned are many times better with a death sentence.

Anonymous said...

I like how that's just an accepted part of the criminal justice system. If someone almost died because I improperly inspected some aircraft component or didn't document a defect, modification or repair... I'd lose my job and could go to prison, and the FAA doesn't buy the "it was a mistake" or "I didn't know" defense.

It's time for some accountability and kaizen in government.

Let's stop electing "businessmen" and start voting in Six Sigma Master Black Belts.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Debbie, "shaken baby" was my shorthand for the scientific claims about trauma to infants that's being challenged. You're right about the specific circumstances of the case, which are detailed in the linked articles.

Anonymous said...

@anon 10:45-

Sadly, it's usually not just one person who caused the problem. Usually, a whole slew of people knew there were problems. Collectively, they shrug their shoulders because of the "that's the way we've always done it" mentality. Root cause analysis usually finds that the persons at the top are the cause -- those that have been employed the longest. Poor training, poor oversight, refusal to approach problems transparently or thoroughly, and general lack of accountability.