Travis County DA’s office now has panel to vet expert witnesses

Crime

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County District Attorney José Garza has released a year-end review to the community, including a change that adds a new “expert witness panel” to vet those the office plans to use to support its cases.

KXAN has covered several of the initiatives mentioned in the letter, including updates to the handling of sex assault cases. Since the “expert witness panel” was something we had not previously explored in-depth, we asked Garza more about it.

The “expert witness panel” reviews every case where someone in the office plans to use an expert. The panel vets the expert witness to make sure the science and input they provide is sound, according to the review. It’s made up of senior attorneys within Garza’s office.

“Most of them have spent their entire careers in the fields they consider when the case or the expert comes to them,” he said. “All of them have significant experience with expert witnesses and the legal requirements we are under to present expert witnesses.”

None of the panel members were able to speak with us Monday, but we did get insight from Spencer Coursen, who has experience testifying as an expert witness throughout Texas. He owns an Austin-based security group.

“You don’t want someone to be testifying about how something was done 20 years ago when the technology, the laws, the policy and the procedures may be very different today,” he said. “Lawyers or plaintiffs or juries — this may be their first exposure to those particular concerns. And it’s my job to come in and assess the facts, give my opinion, but then make that opinion relatable to the case and individuals at hand.”

Garza said the case of Rosa Jimenez was a driving factor in the decision to create the panel.

In 2003, a jury found her guilty of murder for choking a little boy she babysat. He choked on a wad of paper towels, and the expert witness in the initial case said he only could have done so if someone forced them down his throat. A judge released Jimenez on bond in January 2021 after three of the nation’s leading pediatric airway specialists disagreed.

Additionally, a KXAN investigation in 2016 revealed questionable testimony by former Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo.

“For too long here in Travis County we have relied on expert — so-called expert testimony — that has not always been trustworthy,” said Garza.

The report also states in 2021, the DA’s office secured 1,200 indictments in cases of violent offenses like murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated assault and violent crimes against children.

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