Similarly, the 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. According to the doctor who examined the older girl, she bore “scarring” on her hymen, which was later found to be normal vaginal variation; this doctor also recanted her testimony. The women, three of whom were still in prison and one who was already out on parole, were all released in November and are now pursuing their innocence claim with the State of Texas.
For Texas—the state that leads the nation in executions—the new law may be a major step toward more careful and precise verdicts. “It is a recognition by the legislature that science is constantly evolving and our legal system has to evolve with it,” said Crawford.
And for the rest of the country, it’s an opportunity to watch and learn. Mike Snedeker, president of the non-profit National Center for Reason and Justice, described the new law as “elegant and straightforward, and “phenomenally important,” not the least because it clarifies and builds on existing due process rights. In theory, defendants should always be able to bring a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds of new information; in practice, however, outside of cases involving DNA evidence, it’s difficult to do this.
“You could say that the principles it embodies are already part of the federal constitution, but that’s sort of a fuzzy document and the judges that enforce it are distant… They don’t have nearly the credibility that a law passed by your own state has,” said Snedeker. “[The law] makes it clearer, it makes it definite, not an arguable constitutional principle, but rather it’s a state statute that clearly describes when and how you can challenge a conviction based on evidence we now know to be wrong.”
The new statute offers another kind of clarity: “It’s important because a lot of really shaky evidence is clothed in objectivity,” said Snedeker, noting the incalculable impact expert testimony can have on a juror’s decision-making—especially expert testimony characterized as scientific or medical. “Our priests now are scientists, doctors,” said Snedeker. By giving defendants a way to question the sacrosanctity of scientific testimony, the court recognizes that science and medicine are mutable and continually evolving. (It’s notable that all three cases—Avila, the Kellers, and the San Antonio Four—involved children. Crimes involving minors can be particularly fraught and difficult for jurors to navigate, which often makes them more inclined to rely on “hard” evidence. As Snedeker put it, “Children are at the center of our need to have someone to blame. The idea that the random nature of things would take our child is so much harder to deal with.”)
There is, however, one important thing the new statute can’t do: keep bad science out of the courtroom in the first place. Expert witnesses can still draw dubious conclusions about blood spatter patterns, employ much-contested approaches like dog scent line-ups, or try to divine an alleged arsonist’s intentions based on “crazed glass” patterns in windows. This makes Keith Hampton, a lawyer for the Kellers who used the statute in their habeas corpus writ, only cautiously optimistic about the new law. . “A junk science bill that I would get most excited about is the one that prevents junk from coming into the court room in the first place,” he said. “And this absolutely does not, that’s plain. It’s put in the post-conviction chapter in the code of criminal procedure.”
But Snedeker is nevertheless hopeful that the law will influence how cases look in the future. “I think it will definitely make prosecutors think twice,” he said.
And ultimately, he’s impressed: “I’m just stunned, [because] I never thought there would be a time in my life when Texas would be a beacon of legal progress.”