Texas court throws out 1987 murder conviction; declares North Texas man “actually innocent”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found Steven Chaney innocent of a 1987 capital murder conviction on Wednesday after using a “junk science” law to review unsound scientific evidence used in his trial, effectively tossing his sentence and granting him relief.

Chaney was found guilty in Dallas more than 30 years ago for the murders of John and Sally Sweek. Two forensic odontologists testified that they found a human bite mark on John’s left forearm that they said matched Chaney’s teeth. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Chaney was innocent based on his claim that it wouldn’t be possible to match bite marks on a person’s skin.

“Each piece of the State’s trial evidence is questionable ‘or has since been undermined or completely invalidated,’” Judge Barbara Parker Hervey wrote in a 68-page decision.

Chaney’s case is one of several convictions reviewed in recent years for shaky scientific evidence presented at trial. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, started pushing for a “junk science” bill in 2009 and 2011, finally launching the nation’s first law in 2013 that would allow prisoners to challenge their sentences based off faulty scientific evidence. The legislation picked up steam as the state reviewed how effective forensic science and “expert” testimony was in past criminal proceedings, and has since opened a door for death row prisoners to appeal their cases and use the legislation to boost their chances for relief.

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In 2016, the women of the “San Antonio Four,” who were convicted of sexual assault and served 15 years in prison, were exonerated. The law also halted Robert Roberson’s execution two years ago, although his case is still under review in county court.

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