Circuit Split on Due Process And Reliability Of Scientific Factfinding?

In recent denial of certiorari review in Robbins v. Texas, a division in the courts remains over the constitutional soundness of a guilty verdict based in large part on science later alleged to be unreliable. As framed by the petitioner, the issue is whether “federal due process requires that a criminal defendant be afforded a new trial upon the revelation that scientific evidence necessary to his conviction was or has become unreliable as a matter of law or scientific fact.”

Last Thursday at its May 10, 2012 Conference, the United States Supreme Court denied a grant of certiorari review to the petitioner in the case of Robbins v. Texas involving a murder verdict rendered by a state trial court and affirmed, with some dissent, by the state appellate court. One argument for certiorari made in the petitioner's filings was that not only state courts, but the federal circuits, were divided on how to address whether the Constitution protects a defendant against imposition of a criminal penalty based in large part on science later shown to be unreliable. According to the Robbins habeas filings, the Second, Third and Seventh Circuit, while requiring that there be a showing of “false” scientific evidence to trigger a due process review, use a “common-sense” definition of the “false” means, apparently signifying evidence that is somehow unreliable or discredited. These cases include:

In contrast, the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits, according to the petitioner, employ a “heightened standard” requiring that a “a defendant who challenges scientific evidence as unreliable [must] … proffer additional, exculpatory evidence to affirmatively demonstrate how the crime actually did occur, or to demonstrate his or her actual innocence of the crime.” See:

In its opposition to granting the certiorari petition, the state argued that if there was any such split, it was not at all “well-defined” and had not sufficiently “matured” to justify review by the Supreme Court. See Respondent's Brief In Opposition.

With the denial of certiorari review in Robbins, there is no authoritative precedent or guidance on how to address the current circuit split on convictions that might be affected when the evidence underlying a conviction is discovered to be unreliable scientifically. The scope of any split may be a matter of some disagreement. Opponents of review contended that the state of the current law reflects merely the petitioner's “diligent comparison of apples to oranges.” Since this issue may be presented again, below, the Federal Evidence Blog provides a summary of the Robbins case, with links to the filings made by the parties for or against the grant of certiorari:


Federal Rules of Evidence