Lawyers in San Antonio, and indeed all over Texas, may be pulling out and reviewing old case records under a new habeas corpus statute that went into effect just months ago. The new enactment, which allows prisoners to seek release and a new trial if "junk-science" played a pivotal role in conviction, has the potential to affect San Antonio attorneys in the courtroom and beyond as more prisoners seek release. In fact, last month four San Antonio women were the first in Texas to be released under the new statute, questioning a nearly 15-year-old conviction. Attorneys for the "San Antonio four" successfully argued that recent scientific advances undermined medical testimony pivotal to their past convictions.
But it isn't just our great state that is embracing this new statute. All over the country, judges are ordering retrials as prisoners seek exoneration based on withheld evidence or “junk-science” convictions lacking forensic validity. In Texas specifically, “junk-science” refers to false autopsies, inaccurate evaluations of hair and fiber evidence, dog scent lineups, and the past use of now disproven investigation techniques. Many of the incarcerated individuals seeking a case review are “backlogged” for execution, making their situation more urgent and a true matter of life or death. And in Texas, where execution rates are traditionally high and with more than 150,000 incarcerated individuals, even a modest one percent wrongful conviction rate would place 1,500 people unjustly behind bars.
But changes to the Texas judicial and penal system, where frontier justice is still idealized, tend to be slow. Polls find that 73 percent of respondents still favor the death penalty, despite recent doubts raised about courtroom convictions without reliable forensic evidence. Additionally, San Antonio attorneys and law firms may experience a conflicting political climate around the new law where criminal defense and prosecution of cases are concerned, especially in regards to sentencing. Political atmospheres in Texas walk a fine line between Republican governmental minimalism and Evangelical cultural influence. San Antonio attorneys are often asked to navigate carefully between the two when trying a case in front of an elected judge or jury of varying opinion. The differences between imprisonment and execution remain highly controversial, and statewide approval for each varies with elected politicians’ stances. Fiscal conservatives oppose the high cost of incarceration while religious conservatives are being emotionally moved by the possibility of exonerating those wrongly convicted. Crackdown on crime almost always means that more criminals face the need for lawyers and have a more complex investment in the justice system.
With Texas seeing more DNA exonerations than any other state, San Antonio law firms may be seeing a shift in forensic and expert testimony in prosecution and defense, too. The San Antonio four will appeal their case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the next few months, and it follows that San Antonio lawyers should be well-versed in the statute’s provisions and limitations as more Texas prisoners seek release and exoneration.