Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Neal Robbins: Texas: Important appeal today on issue: "What if a field of forensic science has not been discredited, but an individual scientist makes a mistake? What if he or she recants expert testimony years after the conviction?" (Excellent backgrounder by Maurice Chammah, published by The Marshall Project. HL);

COMMENTARY: "Old Convictions, New Science," by Maurice Chammah, published by the Marshall Project on May 28, 2015.

SUB-HEADING: "Texas tackles debunked forensics."

GIST: "In the spring of 2013, the Texas Legislature passed a law that was hailed as the first of its kind in the country. The law expressly allows the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals to grant a new trial in cases where the underlying forensic science is flawed. Throughout the U.S., scandals at crime labs and the discrediting of forensic methods from arson to hair matching to dog-scents have led to legal battles over whether the defendants in such cases could have their convictions overturned. With the 2013 law, Texas lawmakers said they could. Lawyers dubbed an appeal of this sort a “Junk Science Writ.” “In the other 49 states without a Junk Science Writ, freeing an innocent person wrongfully convicted by faulty forensics remains an obstacle,” Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, wrote at the time. This past January, a similar law took effect in California. But now the Texas law has hit an impediment, one that illustrates a dynamic likely to reach other states as they address wrongful convictions brought about by discredited forensic science: What if a field of forensic science has not been discredited, but an individual scientist makes a mistake? What if he or she recants expert testimony years after the conviction? On June 3, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the highest court for criminal cases in the state — will examine this question through the case of Neal Robbins. Since 1999, Robbins has been serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend’s 17-month-old daughter, Tristen Skye Rivet. Robbins had been left alone to take care of the toddler and when her mother returned home, she was unconscious. At Robbins’ trial, Houston medical examiner Patricia Moore concluded that the child’s death was a homicide, brought about by asphyxiation, while Robbins and his lawyers said the girl was found unconscious and that the bruising on her body was simply evidence of efforts to resuscitate her — not signs of an attack. The jury believed the medical examiner and convicted Robbins. Eight years later, in 2007, a friend of Robbins asked the medical examiner’s office to review the autopsy, and another medical examiner found that none of the toddler’s injuries would definitely point to homicide as the cause of death. Moore recanted, writing in a letter to prosecutors that she should have ruled the cause of death “undetermined.” A district judge called Moore’s original testimony “expert fiction calculated to attain a criminal conviction" and described Moore — who has not spoken publicly on the matter — as overworked, inexperienced, and biased towards the prosecution. This past December, the nine judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals, based on the 2013 law, voted 5-4 to grant Robbins a new trial. But three members of the majority have since retired, and as a result, the court will revisit the case with oral arguments on June 3.