Weekly Case Summaries: December 21, 2018

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Ex parte Chaney

No. WR-84,091-01     12-19-18

Issue:

Has the science behind forensic odontology as it relates to bite-mark comparison evolved sufficiently since 1987 to justify habeas relief for a defendant convicted of murder based in part on bite-mark evidence?

Holding:

Yes. “No one has suggested that bitemark comparisons have no basis in science or that the authors of the affidavits are not qualified experts in that area. See Tex. R. Evid. 702. Rather, the ABFO and other experts have decided that the testimony of the sort given at Chaney’s trial is now known to be scientifically unsupportable because it ‘went too far.’” Science supports only three conclusions as to bite-mark evidence: (1) excluded as having made the bitemark; (2) not excluded as having made the bitemark; or (3) inconclusive. Testimony that the defendant was a “match” is insupportable. Read opinion.

Concurrence (Keller, P.J.):

“Should a convicted person be declared “actually innocent” merely because the State’s case has completely fallen apart? Or should the evidence also affirmatively show that the defendant did not in fact commit the crime? I believe that the latter is the case, and that we should think carefully about what constitutes actual innocence in light of the evolution of actual-innocence from (1) a safety-valve claim for relief when relief would not otherwise be possible to (2) a claim that affords greater relief than other claims available to the convicted person.” Read opinion.

Concurrence (Alcala, J., joined by Hervey and Richardson, JJ.):

The concurrence noted that the State agreed with the defendant that he was entitled to habeas relief. “[A]lthough I agree that the clear-and-convincing burden of proof is appropriate under this Court’s current jurisprudence, I would further hold that, when an applicant, the State’s elected district attorney, and the trial court all affirmatively represent in writing that an applicant meets the standard for actual innocence, as here, this Court should always adopt that recommendation, absent a suggestion of a gross misunderstanding of the applicable law or misconduct by the parties or judge. … This Court should reserve its evidentiary analysis for only those cases where the parties have an actual dispute about whether an applicant is entitled to relief on the basis of factual actual innocence.” Read opinion.

Concurrence (Richardson, J., joined by Hervey, Alcala, and Newell, JJ.):

The concurrence disagrees with Presiding Judge Keller’s opinion urging the Court to adopt a more rigorous burden of proof for defendants alleging actual innocence. “I see no reason to change the standard to now require Chaney to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not have that burden at trial, and he should not have that burden now.” Read opinion.

Concurrence (Yeary, J.):

“It is a tragedy when a person is convicted of a crime who should not be, and especially so if he is actually innocent. But the tragedy of a wrongful conviction is not the same as the conviction of an “actually innocent” person. The conviction of an ‘actually innocent’ person is far more troubling and causes a far deeper wound to the integrity of our system. We should not persist in declaring applicants ‘actually innocent’ who have merely demonstrated a wrongful conviction. It diminishes the importance of a declaration of ‘actual innocence.’” Read opinion.

Concurrence (Newell, J., joined by Hervey, Alcala, and Richardson, JJ.):

The concurrence advocated for the current method for evaluating actual innocence claims. “I do not see a reason to reformulate our current standard given how exacting that standard already is. Rather, I am concerned that heightening the existing standard could be perceived as an end-run around [the Texas Supreme Court’s] interpretation of the term ‘actual innocence.’” Read opinion.

Commentary:

This is a tough case, and the State—to its credit—recommended that relief be granted on all of the claims that the defendant raised—faulty expert testimony, false evidence, Brady violations, and actual innocence. This offense occurred in 1987, so hopefully much of the legal and scientific practices have evolved, so that something like this would not occur again today. The majority opinion is exhaustive, and it is certainly fact-bound, as is the case for all of these types of decisions. But prosecutors can come away from this decision with the realization that you should think twice (three times, more?) before relying heavily upon bite-mark comparison evidence. Even though this decision is very fact-bound, and even though it is a habeas corpus case, this decision rivals Ex parte Miles in its importance for prosecutors to show what can—and should not—go wrong in an investigation and trial of a case.

Braughton v. State

No. PD-0907-17      12-19-18

Issue:

Did the court of appeals err in applying the law of self-defense and defense of third parties to the fact of this murder case?

Holding:

No. The defendant’s defensive claims hinged on the testimony of witnesses who viewed the events that led to the defendant shooting another man whom the defendant claimed was threatening him and his father. The jury was free to disbelieve this testimony and reject the defendant’s defensive theories. Read opinion.

Dissent (Keller, P.J., joined by Walker, J.):

“Confronted with a fluid and fast-paced situation, where a failure to act might produce serious consequences for Appellant’s father, it would be understandable for Appellant to disagree with any assessment by his parents that deadly force was not needed, or at least be unwilling to take the chance that that was the case. Moreover, the fact that Appellant fired only a single shot provides further support for the notion that his actions were designed only to defend his father from a perceived danger. Under these circumstances, no rational jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Appellant did not actually believe that deadly force against Dominguez was immediately necessary to protect Appellant’s father from the imminent commission of robbery or murder.” Read opinion.

Commentary:

There was some controversy that worked its way into this case, and that controversy forced the judges to work hard on the facts and the law. The result is a majority opinion that may be the new standard for us to cite on how to review claims that the evidence is insufficient to support the jury’s rejection of a defensive claim, such as self-defense. But apart from that, this case is not particularly remarkable. There certainly was a lot of conflicting evidence surrounding the defendant’s defensive claims, as one would expect in a murder case, in which the defendant was raising self-defense and defense of a third person. Nevertheless, in the actual application of the law to the facts, this case boils down to little more than supporting the jury’s resolution of credibility determinations. They believed the State’s case and did not believe the defendant’s case, which they are generally entitled to do. Excellent work by the State in this hotly contested case.

Last Summaries for 2018

This is the last installment of TDCAA’s Weekly Case Summaries for 2018. The weekly summaries will return on Jan. 4, 2019. Happy holidays to you and yours from the TDCAA staff!

TDCAA is pleased to offer these unique case summaries from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Courts of Appeals and the Texas Attorney General. In addition to the basic summaries, each case will have a link to the full text opinion and will offer exclusive prosecutor commentary explaining how the case may impact you as a prosecutor. The case summaries are for the benefit of prosecutors, their staff members, and members of the law enforcement community. These summaries are NOT a source of legal advice for citizens. The commentaries expressed in these case summaries are not official statements by TDCAA and do not represent the opinions of TDCAA, its staff, or any member of the association. Please email comments, problems, or questions to [email protected].