Texas: a beacon of legal progress

mahhhBad science has never been considered a legitimate defense in a trial … until now.

Last May, the Texas state legislature passed Senate Bill 344, informally known as the “junk science” statute. The first of its kind in the nation, the bill allows a defendant to produce a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of new or revised scientific evidence.

Some may see this bill as extremely controversial — and for good reason. The bill essentially allows convicted criminals the right to receive a second trial, which is the equivalent of hitting the reset button after losing in a video game.

 

 

Just look at some of the convicts in Texas who are beneficiaries of SB 344. They are in the process, or have already received, a second trial and reverse sentence.

Rigoberto “Robert” Avila, 40, was convicted of stomping on a 19-month-old boy’s stomach, killing him in the process. Frances and Dan Keller were convicted in 1991 of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old girl. The infamous San Antonio Four — Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez — were convicted in 1994 of raping Ramirez’s then 9 and 7-year-old nieces.

Murderers and rapists of children aren’t exactly the type of people you would think deserve second chances.

But the key point in all of these cases is the fact that they each involved children. Cases involving children are much more difficult to evaluate than cases involving adults for several reasons, the main one being that children’s testimonies are always taken with a grain of salt.

Can you really count on a child to understand completely what was done to him or her and produce an accurate testimony?

This is exactly why the junk science bill is a beacon of legal progress and not just an unfair out for convicted criminals. Some of these criminals should never have been convicted anyways, at least not when all of the facts were present.

Consider again Avila, the man convicted of stomping on a child’s stomach. Avila pleaded innocent, and claimed that he discovered the child on the floor, not breathing, after the child had been roughhousing with his older brother. At the time of the trial, forensic scientists deemed it impossible that another child could have inflicted these types of injuries, hence making Avila the only logical candidate.

That trial occurred in 2000. Flash forward 14 years later to today, and advances in the fields of biomechanics and physics now say that Avila may just have been telling the truth. A biomechanical engineer discovered that a child jumping directly on to the stomach of a 19-month-old could have inflicted the same kind of injuries that resulted in the child’s death.

The rapists mentioned above, the Kellers and the San Antonio Four, were granted second trials based on new evidence that the so-called “lacerations” to the labia of the children they were accused of sexually assaulting were actually natural variations of vaginal appearance.

The junk science bill isn’t perfect. However, the bill still marks a significant legal achievement in formulating the necessary convergence of science and the law. Science is evolving, rapidly, and it only makes sense that the law should evolve right along with it.

The bill is not about giving second chances, but admitting that scientific evidence at the time of a verdict may have been poorly insufficient and correcting that mistake.

And for Texas, the state that leads the nation in executions, this bill might be just what it needs to ensure convicted criminals on death row really are, in fact, guilty.

For the truth, even the belated truth, is still the truth.

Reach the columnist at jjmah@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jonathanmah