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Texas Court Reexamines Test for Misconduct by Forensic Scientist

Texas Court Reexamines Test for Misconduct by Forensic Scientist

by Mark Wilson

On January 15, 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals modified its earlier decisions in which it had presumed that evidence handled by a forensic scientist who engaged in misconduct was false and material.

Jonathan Salvador was a laboratory technician at the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab. During his six-year tenure, he committed professional misconduct by engaging in “dry labbing,” in which “results are actually arrived at by guesswork or using evidence or results from another analysis.”

Problems were found throughout Salvador’s employment; more than one in three of his cases were returned for corrections. He was suspended for eleven days, and later resigned. The Texas Department of Public Safety identified 4,944 cases in which he had been involved.

The courts were flooded with habeas petitions based on Salvador’s misconduct. In a series of published and unpublished opinions, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted relief, presuming that the evidence was false and material in any case involving Salvador. See: Ex parte Turner, 394 S.W.3d 513 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013); Ex parte Smith, 2013 WL 831359 (Tex. Crim. App. Mar. 6, 2013); Ex parte Hinson, 2013 WL 831183 (Tex. Crim. App. Mar. 6, 2013); and Ex parte Hobbs, 393 S.W.3d 780 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013).

Now recognizing “that it is not appropriate to presume error and materiality in every case on which Salvador worked,” the Court concluded that “the better method for resolving these claims is to allow an applicant to shift the burden of the falsity issue to the State if the requisite predicate is proven, but the burden of persuasion with respect to materiality will always remain with the applicant.” This test would “properly limit the likelihood that a defendant will be convicted based on false evidence without unfairly setting aside convictions obtained by the State.” See: Ex parte Coty, 418 S.W.3d 597 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

Following remand, the trial court issued new findings recommending that the petitioner, Leroy E. Coty, be denied relief on his claims involving misconduct by Salvador. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in June 2014, agreeing with the lower court’s finding that the state had rebutted the inference of false evidence and that the evidence was not material to Coty’s conviction. See: Ex parte Coty, 432 S.W.3d 341 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).


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Related legal cases

Ex parte Coty

Ex parte Coty

Ex parte Turner

Ex parte Smith

Ex parte Hinson

Ex parte Hobbs