Michael Blagg was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty in 2004 of murdering his wife as she slept. The death occurred in Grand Junction, Colorado. Last year, Blagg was granted a new trial after it was discovered that one of his jurors lied on a juror questionnaire when she claimed never to have been the victim of domestic abuse. The juror later appeared at a city council meeting as an advocate for battered women, where she told the council she had been an abuse victim for ten years.
At a hearing on Blagg’s motion for a new trial, the juror testified that she told the truth on her jury form but lied to the city council in order to make a point. That testimony was undermined by evidence that the juror stated during two divorce proceedings and in a restraining order hearing that she had been abused by her ex-husbands.
Unconvinced that the juror had never been an abuse victim, the court expressed concern that she may have made a decision to conceal her own experience with domestic violence in order to serve on Blagg’s jury. If the juror wanted to sit in judgment of Blagg because she had an agenda, she may have tainted other jurors. The potential violation of Blagg’s right to an impartial jury could only be remedied by a new trial. Several months after the judge granted Blagg a new trial, the juror was convicted of contempt of court for willfully lying on her juror questionnaire.
Blagg’s new trial is scheduled to take place next year. Before it starts, however, the court must decide whether an expert witness who testified in the first trial will be allowed to repeat his testimony.
Blagg’s trial lasted for 23 days. Much of the evidence focused on marital discord between Blagg and his wife. No eyewitness saw the murder. No physical evidence linked Blagg to the crime. Blagg’s daughter disappeared the night of his wife’s murder, although Blagg has not been charged with any crime concerning his missing daughter.
Physical evidence suggested that Blagg’s wife was shot in the face while she was in bed. Her body was discovered in a landfill. Prosecutors theorize that the body had been placed in a dumpster at Blagg’s place of business, although they have no witnesses to support that theory.
Controversial Expert Testimony
During the original trial, retired FBI crime scene investigator Ronald Walker testified as a crime scene expert. He told the jury that the murder appeared to be a “staged domestic homicide” and that the murderer had “a high comfort level” that “comes from having intimate familiarity with that house.”
The defense is objecting to the introduction of that testimony in the new trial on the ground that it is based on speculation rather than expertise. While the Colorado Court of Appeals found no error in the admission of that testimony during the first trial, that ruling merely acknowledged that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting it. By the same reasoning, the court has discretion to bar the testimony in the new trial.
The defense is relying on a Colorado Supreme Court opinion that disapproved of “profile” evidence. In that case, the Supreme Court held that an expert could testify that a killing appeared to be a “sexual homicide” but could not testify that the defendant fit the profile of persons who commit sexual homicides.
Blagg’s lawyers are arguing that Walker is pointing a finger at Blagg by testifying that the crime was committed by someone “intimately familiar” with the house, a description that identifies Blagg and no other person. In that regard, they argue that Walker has created a profile and has improperly placed Blagg within the profile.
Crime Scene Expertise
The real question may be whether a crime scene expert is qualified to give testimony that seems more suited to a psychologist. Crime scene experts usually testify about how crimes occurred based on their reconstruction of the crime scene.
Testifying about how a crime probably occurred based on physical evidence is different from testifying about the mental status (in this case, “comfort”) of the person who committed the crime. Yet judges have sometimes permitted crime scene experts to delve into the minds of criminals and their victims. In the recent “American Sniper” trial involving the death of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a crime scene expert testified that Kyle would have protected himself if he had seen the attack coming. Unlike Walker’s testimony, however, that opinion was at least arguably grounded in physical evidence recovered from the crime scene.