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How much will science advance in the courts?

It’s up to the CCA to decide.

Texas’ highest criminal court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could affect how evolving scientific evidence is used in courtrooms across the state.

For Neal H. Robbins, the high court’s decision will determine whether he gets another shot at arguing his innocence.

In 1999, a jury convicted Robbins of killing his girlfriend’s 17-month-old infant. A key witness in the case was Patricia Moore, a Harris County medical examiner who ruled the child’s death was homicide by asphyxiation.

But in 2007, after a different medical examiner reviewed the original findings and disagreed, Moore recanted her trial testimony. In a letter to the district attorney, she wrote that while the infant’s death remained “suspicious,” she had come to believe that “a cause and manner of death of ‘undetermined’ is best for this case,” rather than homicide.

Robbins appealed, but in 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, denied a new trial by a vote of 5-4. In the majority opinion, Justice Larry Meyers wrote that despite her recantation, Moore’s original trial testimony had not been “proven false.”

Now, Robbins is hoping a new law passed by the Legislature in 2013 will cause the court to change course and give him another shot to prove his innocence. The law, Senate Bill 344, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, allows courts to grant post-conviction relief in cases where scientific testimony that was essential to a conviction has been contradicted. A lower court judge has recommended that Robbins be granted a new trial, but the CCA will make the final call.

Scott Henson, who was quoted in the story, adds some context.

[I]t was the CCA’s ruling in exactly this case that caused prosecutors to back off and agree to the bill’s passage. The court’s ruling in Ex Parte Robbins made clear the CCA would allow convictions based on junk science to stand if the Legislature didn’t change the law. After Robbins, the Harris County DA’s office (which had been the only significant opposition) acquiesced and helped negotiate the final language that’s now in the statute. It would be ironic if Robbins did not now prevail, since this particular case was the one that pushed the bill over the finish line at the Lege.

This is the same new statute under which the San Antonio Four and Fran and Dan Keller were released – they’re now out on bail though the CCA hasn’t given final approval in those cases yet. Those junk science cases are considered more likely to be easily approved, while the Robbins case – which involves an ME who gave erroneous testimony and changed her opinion after she learned more science – is considered the first test case that will provide an indication how the CCA will interpret the new writ.

He has more links and information in his post, so go read it. It’s clear what the CCA needs to do in this case, it’s just a matter of them doing it. I’m not sure what else the Legislature could do if they don’t do their job here. Hair Balls has more.

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