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Dallas D.A. Says Supremes Should Take Jimenez Case

Watkins asking court to decide standard for actual innocence

By Jordan Smith, 11:31AM, Wed. Oct. 31, 2012

Rosa Jimenez
Rosa Jimenez
Photo by Jana Birchum

What does it take to prove actual innocence? That is among the questions now before the U.S. Supreme Court with the Austin case of Rosa Jimenez, convicted in connection with the 2003 choking-related death of toddler Bryan Gutierrez – it's a question that Dallas County D.A. Craig Watkins and a number of law professors think the court should answer.

According to friend-of-the-court briefs filed this month with the Supremes urging them to accept Jimenez's case, the Mexican national's case presents the perfect opportunity to "recognize free-standing claims of actual innocence," and to "unify the standards among the states for evaluating such claims, and prescribe the remedy for an applicant who prevails" in court on such a claim, according to a brief filed by Dallas County District Attorney Watkins.

Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison in connection with the death of Gutierrez, whom she was babysitting when prosecutors say she shoved a wad of five paper towels down his throat, choking him. Gutierrez died three months later.

At trial, local doctors who treated Gutierrez insisted that the only way to the explain the paper in Gutierrez's throat was that Jimenez deliberately placed them there. But at a hearing in December 2010, experts brought in for the first time by the defense countered that it was far more likely that the injuries were the result of a tragic accident and not a deliberate choking.

The testimony was persuasive enough that then-District Judge Charlie Baird found by a preponderance of evidence that had a jury heard the defense's medical testimony it is unlikely they would have convicted Jimenez; Baird ruled that she should be granted a new trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately disagreed, concluding, in part, that although the defense's expert testimony rebutted the state's medical testimony at trial, it did not establish by "clear and convincing evidence" that Jimenez "was actually innocent of murder or injury to a child." The CCA denied Jimenez the new trial ordered by Baird.

In recently filed briefs, both the Dallas DA's office and a group of seven distinguished law professors from across the country Рincluding UT's own Jordan Steiker Рare urging the Supremes to take Jimenez's case in order to decide whether a "preponderance" of evidence, or "clear and convincing" evidence Рor something else altogether Рis required for a defendant to gain relief on a so-called freestanding claim of innocence.

The Supremes have previously recognized the existence of freestanding innocence claims – that is, where a claim of innocence stands alone without being tied to some procedural defect or other legally cognizable claim – but have declined to define exactly what it takes to prove up such a claim. State courts are divided on how to answer that, the law professors wrote, and the Supremes should take the Jimenez case precisely because the CCA opined that clear and convincing "evidence of innocence entitles a prisoner to a new trial but that a 'preponderance' of such evidence does not."

"[T]he absence of explicit recognition [of freestanding innocence claims] and a uniform standard has generated a scattershot of state tests that are generally inconsistent on their faces and in their applications," reads the brief filed by Watkins. In the "interest of equal justice," the brief continues, the Supremes should "prescribe a uniform, nationwide standard for determining free-standing post conviction claims of actual innocence."

The Supremes were slated to consider the case in conference in early October, but there is no deadline for them to decide whether to take the case.

More on the CCA's denial of Jimenez's appeal is here.

For additional background on Jimenez's case see, "A Parliament of Experts," Feb. 4, 2011.

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