Presented with an appalling set of facts, the North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously upheld the defendant’s convictions for murder, kidnapping, sex offense, and felony child abuse. The majority affirmed a sentence of death. Justice Berger’s concurring opinion, addressing only a Miranda issue, was joined by four other justices, making it “the supplemental opinion of the Court.” Justice Earls dissented with regard to capital punishment, concluding the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. This post summarizes the 225-page opinion in Richardson.
My recent criminal justice class involved forensics so, being in London, it seemed only fitting to take a look at Sherlock Holmes and his methods. What was the impact of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character on the development of forensics? What can we learn from Holmes more than 130 years after his first appearance in the classic A Study in Scarlet?
Like most of the rest of the country, I followed the recent confirmation hearings for Judge (now Justice) Kavanaugh with great interest.
As the readers of this blog already know, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school. Much of her testimony recounted her recollection of that event, but some of her testimony was of a different nature. In addition to telling the Committee what she recalled, Dr. Ford also described the biological and chemical processes of memory itself, such as the way that neurotransmitters encode memories into the hippocampus.
Most of us will never participate in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, but a similar type of dual testimony can arise in criminal trials in state court, and it raises some interesting issues.
The State of North Carolina goes to trial against Donnie Defendant, who is alleged to be the infamous “Tarheel State Killer” and charged with committing a series of brutal assaults and murders several decades ago. The state’s case depends heavily on matching DNA evidence from the crime scene to a sample of DNA taken off a cigarette butt discarded by Donnie. At trial, Special Agent Wanda Witness testifies as an expert in forensic DNA analysis for the state. After explaining the science behind PCR, STR, loci, and markers, Wanda opines that Donnie’s DNA is indeed a match to the DNA recovered from the crime scene.
Sounds like good news for the state, but what exactly does a “match” mean? And how may the significance or statistical probability of that “match” be expressed to the jury? It’s an important question, because what might sound like two similar ways of expressing the same probability can have dramatically different meanings – and possibly even be considered error on appeal.
It’s not Thursday, but I’m going to throw it back a few years to 2014. Like the rest of the nerds I know, I became obsessed that year with the podcast Serial. The first season of that podcast chronicled the prosecution of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Host Sarah Koenig meticulously sifted through the evidence and conducted goodness-knows-how-many interviews with everyone connected to the case, including numerous recorded interviews with Syed, who is serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison. Syed claims that he did not kill Lee, whose body was discovered six weeks after she disappeared buried in a Baltimore park. Koenig spends the first several episodes of the podcast describing inconsistencies in witness’s accounts of the day Lee disappeared—inconsistencies that raise doubts about Syed’s guilt. But in episode five, Koenig, with the help of her producer, analyzes the evidence that the State offered regarding which cell towers serviced calls to Syed’s phone during the time that one of Syed’s friends claimed Syed was burying Lee’s body. The producer concludes:
“I think they were probably in [the park] . . . Because . . . the amount of luck that you would have to have to make up a story like that and then have the cell phone records corroborate those key points, I just don’t think that that’s possible.”
Here’s a question that arose during a recent class: Suppose that a party in a criminal case seeks to introduce forensic evidence from a discipline of questionable validity, such as bite mark analysis. The lawyer on the other side isn’t aware that the technique has been the subject of scientific criticism and doesn’t object. Must the trial judge nonetheless assess the reliability of the proposed testimony before admitting it?
In Moore v. Texas, which I discussed here, the Supreme Court of the United States held that courts must rely on current clinical standards when determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and so exempt from the death penalty. Must courts also defer to clinical standards when determining whether a defendant is insane and so exempt from criminal culpability? I don’t think so, for the reasons below.
This post addresses three recurrent issues concerning eyewitness identification:
- When, if at all, is expert testimony about eyewitness identification admissible?
- When, if at all, is an indigent defendant entitled to funds with which to hire an expert on eyewitness identification?
- May jury instructions, rather than expert testimony, be used to inform the jury about factors relevant to the accuracy of an eyewitness identification?
The North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. McGrady, __ N.C.___ (June 10, 2016), that Rule 702(a) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence incorporates the standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). That’s what the court of appeals had already said, so it isn’t a big surprise. In McGrady, the application of Daubert led the state supreme court to conclude that the trial court did not err in excluding testimony from an expert in law enforcement training about the defendant’s conscious and unconscious responses to a perceived threat from the victim. McGrady’s analysis opens the door for reconsidering the admissibility of many types of expert testimony previously admitted as a matter of course, including expert testimony from law enforcement experts involving scientific and medical principles.
The rules of thumb about expert testimony in child sexual abuse cases are (1) that an expert can’t testify that a child was, in fact, abused absent physical evidence, and (2) that an expert can testify to common characteristics or “profiles” of sexual abuse victims. A recent court of appeals case holds that even if the State doesn’t give notice of an expert’s opinion regarding victims’ characteristics, the expert has the leeway to discuss his or her own experiences with survivors of sexual abuse.