Texas Innovates In How To Deal With Science In The Courts

The Innocence Project is focused on exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, mainly through the use of DNA evidence.  In many instances, at the time the people were convicted, DNA evidence was not sufficiently mature in order to demonstrate a person’s innocence.  For better or for worse, there is not a simple way in which criminal convictions based on inaccurate (or updated) scientific methodology can be overturned.

Texas (yep, that Texas) has passed a law that could make the process easier.  Signed last June (and effective since September 1), the law addresses the right to habeas corpus (literally, you may have the body) in the context of new and/or changed scientific evidence.  Convicted individuals can apply for relief from the court if there is relevant scientific evidence now available that was either not reasonably ascertainable at the time of trial, or conflicts with evidence asserted by the state at trial.

Since the law went into effect, three cases have used the law to obtain release for the convicted individuals (pending procedures to prove innocence per Texas law), or a hearing for a new trial.  And that’s in six months.

There is certainly the opportunity for abuse.  The law does not define what is meant by relevant scientific evidence, leaving that to the courts to determine.  That the law is referred to in some reports as the ‘junk science’ bill is problematic, because not all instances where the law could be used cover instances of inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong scientific claims.  It also covers instances where new scientific theories or refinements in analysis and measurement could warrant reopening a case to demonstrate someone’s innocence.  What the law does is reinforce the validity of scientific knowledge (or at least changes in same) to provide cause to reopen criminal cases.

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