Conviction Based on Bite Mark Thrown Out
By Jillian Bliss (Candidate, J.D. ’17)
Seven weeks into the inaugural year of SMU's Actual Innocence Clinic, members of the Innocence Clinic witnessed history as their first client walked out of a Dallas courtroom in early October.
Judge Dominique Collins recommended overturning the conviction of Steven Mark Chaney for a 1987 murder, which was based upon expert testimony now considered junk science and released him from custody. During Chaney's trial, expert testimony suggested a patterned injury on the victim's body was actually a bite mark with a "one in a million" chance of belonging to anyone but Chaney. Science has since discredited such bite mark "matching" evidence altogether, and it is no longer considered a believable basis for convictions.
"Judge Collins approved the findings of fact agreed to by the parties - that Mr. Chaney was convicted on 'junk science' and that he was denied due process by virtue of the false evidence," said Julie Lesser of the Dallas County Public Defender's Office.
Lesser, who supervises the work of SMU's Innocence Clinic along with Professor Victoria Palacios, started working on Chaney's case in late 2012. This year's clinic consists of a second-year law students Jillian Bliss and Christina Phillips, and third-year law students Kassandra Nelson, Kristine Cruz, Joshua Avila and Jared Fontenot. Members aided Lesser in preparing Chaney's case brief and provided legal research and analysis in reviewing the case, as well as interviewing Mr. Chaney personally. Although SMU's legal clinics usually require participants to come in with a good portion of their legal studies complete, second-year students Bliss and Phillips were admitted after personally approaching clinic directors about their passion and interest in upholding fairness and credibility in the Texas criminal justice system. All six students have found Chaney's case personally inspirational for a number of reasons, and an experience they will never forget.
"Mr. Chaney puts a wonderful personality to the several case files we have to go through in order to process a habeas case," said Cruz. "I am extremely grateful to Professor Palacios and Julie for allowing us to work on this particular case, especially so close to the finish line. Being there for his release was inspirational, an experience I will definitely take with me as we continue to work on his case and our other cases."
Lesser said the work of the New York-based Innocence Project also provided serious insight into forensic odontology necessary to overrule the previous expert testimony. Two additional grounds remain in Chaney's case, which clinic members will continue to work with Lesser in proving and bringing back to court for additional hearings.
“The goal is to fully clear Mr. Chaney's name,” Lesser said.
Although Chaney's release was an exciting and fulfilling moment for all involved, clinic members are already reviewing materials related to new and potential clients.
"Chaney’s story is not exclusive," said Nelson, who also said Chaney's case solidifies her decision to join the clinic. "I hope we can again help someone pursue and receive the justice they deserve."
The clinic is currently working on other cases involving issues of witness recantation, Brady violations, constitutional issues and eyewitness misidentification.
While each student joined from different backgrounds and with different interest, each shares an eagerness and enthusiasm necessary in resolving innocence claims.
"I just remember reading the kind of things we were going to be doing, and I said, 'I'm in!'" Avila said.