Appeals Court Will Hear First Arguments Under New "Junk Science" Law Wednesday
The state Court of Criminal Appeals will hear arguments Wednesday in the curious case of Neal Hampton Robbins, convicted in Montgomery County in 1999 of killing his girlfriend's 17-month old daughter, and sentenced to life in prison. It's the first time the CCA will hear arguments under a 2013 statute addressing convictions alleged to have been won using bad science.
A lot of eyes are on the Robbins case.
What may have been a routine murder conviction took a turn in 2007, when the medical examiner who originally ruled Tristen Rivet's death a homicide, and who provided strong testimony for the state, reviewed the autopsy and decided that there was not enough evidence to conclude the child was murdered. The death certificate was amended to "undetermined." Of course, the fact that homicide was off the table had no immediate bearing on Robbins, who remained in prison.
The Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed Robbins' conviction, but in 2010, trial judge Michael Mayes recommended the case be reviewed by the Court of Criminal Appeals. (Mayes called Moore's original testimony "expert fiction calculated to attain a criminal conviction.") In 2011, the Court voted 5-4 against granting a new trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case the same year.
But in 2013, the state legislature passed a stunning measure -- a statute that allows convicted defendant to seek a new trial if they can prove the conviction was based on faulty science, or scientific evidence unavailable at trial. (The Atlantic called it a "groundbreaking new Texas law, the only one of its kind in the nation, which recognizes that science can get it wrong.")
Wice, who testified in support of the bill before a senate committee, believes the Robbins case is exactly the kind of case the new law was meant for. He argues that, because prosecutors relied chiefly on expert witness testimony from medical examiner Patricia Moore, who later changed her opinion, the conviction was unjust.