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Lawyers Seek New Trial For Death Row Inmate Areli Escobar

By Jazmine Ulloa Austin American Statesman June 22, 2014

Lawyers for death row inmate Areli Escobar are seeking to overturn his conviction, contending that one of the jurors who sentenced him in May 2011 hid the fact that he had once worked with the defendant before his murder trial.

In a petition filed in Travis County district court, the attorneys say Charles Lancaster was prejudiced against Escobar and lied during the jury selection process when he told the defense team that he did not recognize the defendant. The two men had been employed about five years earlier at a North Austin circuit board assembly plant, where Lancaster had unrequited romantic feelings for a woman who had a close relationship with Escobar, they claim.

A state district judge has already heard testimony on the claim and is expected to issue a ruling after attorneys from both sides file their final findings within the next two months. The legal challenge could pave the way for a new trial in a death penalty case that gripped the city, if Escobar's lawyers can prove the juror was deceitful or biased.

Escobar, 35, was found guilty of sexually assaulting and stabbing 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado, a neighbor and high school student, in a May 2009 attack at her East Austin apartment. Witnesses said her 1-year-old son, who survived, was found next to her body with a cut on his hand and bruises around his eyes.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, rejected his direct appeal and affirmed his conviction in November 2013.

Now he is under the counsel of the Office of Capital Writs, established by the Legislature in 2009 to ensure death row inmates receive professional legal help on petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, which are intended to reinvestigate aspects of capital murder cases to guarantee that death sentences were constitutionally levied.

Attorneys with the office filed a habeas petition on behalf of Escobar in May 2013. It includes a number of claims that they say merit a new trial, including the need for further testing of forensic evidence and allegations that other people might have been present at the time of the killing. But for now, his lawyers are proceeding solely on the basis of juror misconduct.

A two-day hearing on the claim was held March 31 and April 1 in the same courtroom where Escobar's jury selection took place more than two years ago, according to more than 340 pages of transcripts obtained by the American-Statesman.

On the stand, nine of Escobar's former co-workers said they would be surprised to learn that Lancaster had told the court in 2011 that he did not remember Escobar from their days at PenTech Assembly.

Lancaster, who is now 70, and his wife founded the company in 2002 with another couple, and his tenure overlapped that of Escobar, who worked as a machine operator, for a total of about seven months in 2005 and 2006 before Lancaster left the business. There were nearly two dozen employees, according to the testimony.

Lancaster was a customer relations manager who spent most of his time in his office on another floor, but at least once a week he would head down to the production floor, where he would check on orders and communicate with Brandon Goodwin, a supervisor who shared a double cubicle with Escobar, witnesses said. Some of the employees testified that they had seen Lancaster and Escobar talk business on multiple occasions.

Escobar's attorneys, Brad Levenson, Sam Farina-Henry and David Gonzalez, emphasized Escobar's and Lancaster's close quarters at work, even after the company moved to another building. They portrayed Lancaster as a man in a failing marriage who favored interacting with female employees over male workers and who had unreciprocated feelings for a stockroom employee, Magdalena "Nena" Ramirez.

But co-workers said that they knew Ramirez and Lancaster to have only a professional relationship, that they had never seen him act inappropriately toward her and that she had never made any complaints about his behavior. Witnesses said she was good friends with Escobar and told one employee she had a crush on him.

In their questioning, state prosecutors Kathryn Scales and Allison Wetzel cast Ramirez as dishonest, as an outspoken worker who would have filed formal grievances if Lancaster had offended her and as a mother who had been struggling financially.

They pointed to Lancaster's age as a reason for his faulty memory, saying it was double that of any of the other employees on the production floor, and said Escobar and Lancaster had known each other for far less time than any of the other workers.

The most damning testimony came from Ramirez, who told the court that Lancaster had often made her feel uncomfortable at work by the way he commented on her appearance. After the trial, she said, he came in to eat at the North Austin restaurant where she had been working as a waitress and told her he had served on the jury.

"I was in disbelief, and I just kind of like stepped back, didn't say anything for a moment," she recounted. "And I was like, 'I don't understand how you could. We actually, you know, worked together.' "

But on the stand, Lancaster denied allegations that he had felt any kind of affection for Ramirez and said he only once loaned her $100 and another time gave her a used cellphone because she had been pregnant and appeared to be having money trouble.

Jury selection in a capital murder trial is a lengthy procedure that unfolds in three phases over several weeks and draws hundreds of candidates from across the county. During the first phase, Lancaster said, he did not recognize Escobar.

He only realized that he had worked with the man when a defense lawyer in the second phase told him Escobar had been employed at PenTech and had been known by his nickname "AC."

"To put 'AC' with this gentleman here, Areli Escobar, I could only make that connection because that's what I was told," he said. He told the court then that he had worked with an AC at PenTech but that he did not recall Escobar, he said.

"But please let me add here," Lancaster later interjected, pointing at Escobar, "… that I can sit here and look at Mr. Escobar today, and I do not remember working with this gentleman by physical appearance, period."

He was not a biased juror, he testified. "I was sitting on the fence, if you will, as to whether he was guilty or not guilty all the way up to when the DNA evidence was submitted to the jury, and for me, that was the sealing factor," he said.

Updated Sunday, February 19, 2017

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