“Science Goes to Court”

Jordan Smith
The Austin Chronicle  
November 01, 2013 


The Austin Chronicle news feature story – “Science Goes to Court” by Jordan Smith, Nov. 1, 2013 – focuses on a particular aspect of scientific evidence, that of biomechanics. Examining the capital murder case against Rigoberto Avila of El Paso, which turned on a confession that may have been coerced or fabricated, as well as dubious expert testimony, the story examines not only the Avila case but how that case reflects changing scientific perspective on biomechanical evidence in criminal trials. Texas law has recently changed in this area, with the 2013 passage of SB 344, which acknowledges developments in the science of biomechanics that could affect evidence in criminal cases. As Smith reports, Avila’s attorney argues, “I think that this is a case where scientific evidence really calls into question the reliability of the conviction” … exactly the kind of case that … Senate Bill 344 was intended to address.”

Smith moves on from this particular case to address the larger implications of these evidentiary developments, including a broad revision of what has long been presumed about “Shaken Baby Syndrome.” In brief, Smith reports that SBS as a potential cause of homicide is no longer supported by the scientific consensus, and that in fact, “researchers found through physical testing that human adults could not generate the force needed to kill an infant by shaking alone.” As Smith reports via forensic experts, it has become “essential to a modern pathologist’s job [to use] the best science available by bringing in biomechanical engineers to determine, exactly, whether an injury could be accidental.”

In short, “Science Goes to Court” is precisely the sort of story that the Headliner Awards – promoting journalism that reflects a “significant impact on … public policy” – are meant to encourage, and I urge your consideration.

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Submitted by Michael King.

Headliners Foundation