Texas “Junk Science” Law has Saved Defendants from Execution


In recent years, many forensic techniques have been discredited as new information cast doubt on their reliability. Texas has a trailblazing state law allowing courts to overturn convictions in cases where the scientific evidence that led to the original verdict has since changed or been discredited.

Although the law is not often used, it has saved defendants on death row from execution.

This month, the Texas Tribune highlighted the case of Robert Roberson who wound up on death row for the murder of his two-year-old daughter. Roberson has maintained his innocence in the 15 years since his sentence.

Roberson’s two-year-old daughter Nikki fell out of the bed where they were sleeping in an East Texas town. He woke up hours later and found his daughter unresponsive. Nikki suffered from health issues.

However, doctors and nurses later became suspicious that a fall would have caused sufficient damage to kill the child.

At Roberson’s trial, doctors testified that the girl’s injuries were consistent with “shaken baby syndrome.” The testimony persuaded jurors to back the death penalty for the defendant.

Roberson was back in court this month fighting his conviction. The “junk science law” is credited with saving his life two years ago when he was due to be executed.

The Tribune reported the law was the first of its kind to be passed in the nation in 2013. Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, highlighted several examples of bad science that led to convictions including infant trauma.

Shaken baby syndrome has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Roberson became one of the first death row inmates to have his conviction scheduled for review. The decision came in 2016, just days before his execution was set to be carried out.

This month, the court was asked to consider whether the death row inmate would have been convicted of murder if new scientific evidence on fatal falls and shaken baby syndrome injuries was available at his original trial.

In the last 10 years, scientific experts have cast doubt on shaken baby syndrome, which involves the death of an infant who is shaken violently back and forth. Detractors include the doctor first credited with observing the condition.

Some experts believe shaken baby syndrome is used far too often in criminal cases. There are concerns the deaths of infants are routinely labeled as murder without considering medical histories and other possibilities

More than 16 shaken baby convictions have been overturned since 2001, the Washington Post reported.

An article in Slate explained how shaken baby syndrome, a theory developed in the 1970s, has been discredited.

Doctors would identify how patterns of injuries could only be caused by shaking. A combination of bleeding on the surface of the brain, swelling of the brain, and bleeding behind the retinas was seen as clear proof that a baby had been abused. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and led to the convictions of hundreds of people.

Over the past two decades, a new body of research highlighted how accidents, diseases, and genetic conditions can produce the same injuries. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that doctors stop using the term shaken baby syndrome.

A number of forensic techniques seen as cast-iron proof of guilt in past years have unraveled. They include bite mark analysis and blood-stain pattern analysis. If you have been charged with a crime based on forensic evidence, it’s important to hire a veteran criminal defense lawyer who can challenge this evidence. Schedule a confidential consultation with our defense team today.

At Broden & Mickelsen, LLP, we are experienced Dallas criminal defense lawyers are dedicated to providing aggressive and ethical representation to individuals and businesses charged with crimes.