AUSTIN (KXAN) — Areli Escobar, who a jury convicted of capital murder, is one step closer to getting a retrial on his case following a Supreme Court ruling.

Escobar was sentenced to death for the May 2009 deadly stabbing and sexual assault of 17-year-old high school student Bianca Maldonado.

Picture of victim from when she was 17.
Bianca Maldonado was 17 when she was killed.

On Monday, Supreme Court justices threw out a ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas that refused to grant Escobar – who is on death row – a new trial.

During the trial, prosecutors used DNA handled at the Austin Police Department’s old crime lab, which has a troubled history.

“We were deeply concerned the evidence the jury reviewed in this case was not reliable,” said Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza.

A 2016 audit found that lab technicians used expired materials and flawed science while handling DNA, potentially botching thousands of cases.

Since the issues at the lab were exposed, the City has overhauled the forensic program. When the original lab first shut down, DNA services were outsourced to the Texas Department of Public Safety. As of October, Forensic Science has been its own entity – separate from the police department – to “provide an additional layer of independence, technical oversight, and autonomy over forensic services,” according to a City spokesperson.

“DNA is very important to juries. They find it very impactful because it’s science,” said Stacie Lieberman, director of The Forensic Project – a group established to review cases that may have been impacted by issues at the former lab. She is not one of Escobar’s attorneys.

According to a city memo released last fall, about 500 people reached out to attorneys with the Forensic Project about their cases.

“Each person is getting the thorough review that the gravity of the situation warrants and that they deserve,” said Lieberman, adding that The Forensic Project has reviewed more than half of the cases presented to the group, Liberman said. “When a wrongful conviction occurs, there’s always the risk that the true perpetrator has escaped justice.”

One person has already had their conviction vacated through The Forensic Project’s efforts on this: Lamarcus Turner. Police arrested him in 2014 and charged him with drug possession. In 2021, an appeals court agreed the DNA used in his case was unreliable.

The issues at the lab came to light after Escobar was convicted, and the newfound information prompted an elected district judge to hold a special hearing about the evidence in his case, Garza said. The judge ultimately suggested granting Escobar a new trial, which an appeals court disregarded. After Monday’s Supreme Court decision, the case is now back with that appeals court.

“I think what’s important for us to acknowledge is [the victim’s family’s] hurt and their pain,” Garza said. “That this decision doesn’t diminish that in any way. What I’m hopeful this decision does is move us down a path where we can win a justice that we can all be proud of. A justice that really honors out victims in this case, and that is in line with our rules in this country and our values in a community.”