Tag Archives: forensic expert witness

High Profile Forensic Expert Witness Rejected due to Questionable Qualifications

A DNA expert witness who has testified on behalf of defendants in several high profile trials was dismissed from a Colorado courtroom for being unqualified.  The expert’s dismissal could result in attorneys being less likely to use him, however, he argues the judge’s decision to denounce his qualifications was made in error and his expert testimony is scientifically validated.

High Profile Expert Witness Dismissed from Colorado Trial

Richard Eikelenboom is a forensic scientist who has testified as a DNA expert witness in several high profile trials across the country, most notably on behalf of Casey Anthony who was acquitted by a Florida jury in 2011 on all charges stemming from her 3-year-old daughter’s death.  Eikelenboom took the stand in the Casey Anthony trial as a DNA expert, and told jurors that there was not sufficient forensic evidence to connect Anthony to her daughter’s death.  His DNA expert testimony contributed in part to her acquittal, and Eikelenboom has been called as a forensic expert for several years in trials across the country.

Last week, Eikelenboom’s reputation and position as a DNA expert witness suffered a significant blow when a Denver judge discredited his qualifications to testify about forensic evidence in court.  During testimony in a 2013 sexual assault case, the judge presiding over the trial found that Eikelenboom had committed serious errors in his DNA analysis by failing to follow proper scientific standards set by other professionals in the field.  According to prosecutors in the case, Eikelenboom admitted on the stand that he did not have experience directly extracting or analyzing DNA, that his lab is not properly accredited, and that he himself failed proficiency tests in 2011 and 2012.

After hearing about flaws in Eikelenboom’s analysis and proficiency level, the Denver judge rejected his testimony by finding he was unqualified to take the stand.  Since being dismissed as an unqualified expert, Eikelenboom has attempted to dispute the judge’s conclusion and offer assurances that his forensic expert testimony is built on sound principles and methods.

Debunked Expert Witness Defends Qualifications

Speaking to the media after being dismissed from testifying as a forensic expert witness, Richard Eikelenboom attempted to address the accusations that he does not produce reliable DNA analysis.  Calling the claims that his methodology is fundamentally flawed “completely unfounded,” Eikelenboom told reporters that the prosecutors manipulated his responses in order to paint an inaccurate portrayal. According to Eikelenboom, the trial judge did not completely understand his work or his qualifications, and therefore made the decision to reject his testimony without all of the relevant facts.

Eikelenboom also pointed out that his lab has received accreditation from two separate professional organizations, including the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD).  Additionally, some of the disputed DNA testing which prosecutors used as proof that he was not qualified was conducted decades ago, and Eikelenboom maintains that he has received the proper training and education to act as a forensic science expert witness.  He also told the press that his professional name and reputation has been slandered, and announced intentions to contact a lawyer.

Forensic Expert’s Dismissal Could Limit Future Opportunities

Prior to last week’s challenge to his professional reputation, Eikelenboom testified in several criminal trials, several of which resulted in defendants being acquitted of fairly serious charges.  In addition to Casey Anthony, the forensic expert was called by former Indiana State Trooper David Camm who was acquitted of killing his wife and children, and helped overturn a murder conviction of Tim Masters, a Colorado man who spent more than 20 years in prison before DNA analysis conducted by Eikelenboom’s lab was used to exonerate him.   While none of the past work can be impacted by last week’s decision, Eikelenboom’s future as an expert witness may be in jeopardy.

Forensic science expert witnesses are widely used in criminal trials across the country, and competition for the opportunity to testify as an expert can be significant.  Experts rely on their professional reputation in order to market their skill set, and Eikelenboom’s recent dismissal will likely impact his opportunities going forward.  Attorneys will be hesitant to hire an expert whose qualifications have been questioned, even if the expert has testified successfully in high profile cases.

Former OJ Simpson Forensic Expert Witness Comments on Discovery of Possible Murder Weapon

A forensic expert witness who testified for the O.J. Simpson defense team during the sensational 1995 murder trial spoke to news outlets this week about the possibility that DNA evidence is recovered from a knife recently uncovered at Simpson’s former home.  Although the former athlete and broadcaster cannot be retried for murder, DNA found on the knife may finally provide a murder weapon after more than two decades of searching.

Knife Found on OJ Property Turned into LAPD

Last week the Los Angeles Police Department announced it was examining a knife which was reportedly found years ago on an estate which once belonged to OJ Simpson.  The knife was turned over to the LAPD by an ex-Los Angeles traffic officer who was allegedly given the item by a construction worker who claims to have found the knife while renovating OJ’s former estate sometime “back in the 90’s.”  Following his retirement, the officer turned the knife in after holding on to it for almost two decades, apparently under the belief that the case was closed and any potential evidence no longer mattered.

Whether or not the knife is the weapon which was used to kill Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994 has yet to be determined, but the development provides an interesting twist during a time when attention to the case has been reawakened by recent FX television dramatization of OJ’s arrest and trial.  Simpson, who has been in jail for a robbery conviction in Nevada since 2008, is protected from a second murder prosecution by double jeopardy, but the LAPD is still testing the knife for a potential link to the notorious murder, which officially remains unsolved.

Former OJ Forensic Expert Witness Speaks About Knife

Dr. Henry Lee, who testified as a forensic expert witness during OJ’s mid-90’s trial, spoke with a Connecticut news station following the discovery of the knife to discuss its potential impact.  According to Lee’s expert analysis, the knife could still contain enough biological evidence to connect it to Brown and Goldman, which would confirm it is the murder weapon.  Lee, who has not been asked to examine the newly discovered weapon, told reporters that forensic experts working in a lab could potentially identify DNA sufficient to connect the weapon to the victims and potentially perpetrator depending on how well preserved the weapon was.

When asked directly if DNA could be recovered from the knife, Dr. Lee responded, “If the knife underneath someplace, yes, if protected. If knife exposed to environment you probably can still find some mitochondrial DNA. If you find hairs, because that’s a really brutal murder so there should be sufficient amount of blood, or tissue, or cells still, or hair on them.“  Dr. Lee went on to explain that police should first determine if there is blood on the knife before analyzing whether or not it is human blood.  If there is human blood on the knife, Dr. Lee said it is possible to create a DNA link.

Dr. Lee cautioned, however, that rust on the knife could result in a false positive and concluded that a DNA connection, while possible, would be difficult.  The knife is being examined by LAPD forensic experts this week.

Knife Will Have Little Effect on OJ Simpson

Tampering excitement about the knife’s discovery is the fact that several false murder weapons have been turned in over the years, and the timing of this discovery – which syncs perfectly with the FX television series – is suspicious. Even if the knife is connected forensically to OJ, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, it is unlikely to impact Simpson, who cannot be tried again for the murders.  According to representatives for OJ, there is a small concern that it could negatively impact his upcoming parole hearing.  Simpson is eligible for parole in November of 2017, and there is some speculation that should the knife forensically connect him to the murders the Nevada parole board could use that fact to reject his attempt for parole.

Of course, this series of events is both distant and unlikely, but as the American public regains a new interest in the OJ Simpson murder case the discovery of the knife potentially used to commit the crimes opens up a new story for police, forensic experts, and the media to investigate.

Pennsylvania Judge Denies Access to Source Code Behind DNA Expert Witness Software

Last year we covered a Pennsylvania legal dispute over DNA testing software used by forensic expert witnesses in criminal trials.  Earlier this week the case took another turn when a Pennsylvania judge blocked defense lawyers from accessing the source code for the software, rejecting arguments that the Sixth Amendment mandated the DNA expert witnesses turn over the details of their methodology.

Defense Attorneys Challenge DNA Expert Witness Software

In Pennsylvania and across the country forensic DNA expert witnesses have increasingly relied on a software program which, according to its creators, is able to improve the accuracy of DNA testing significantly.  The program, called TrueAllele, can provide police investigators and prosecutors with a positive match using DNA found at a crime scene by comparing it to large databases of stored genetic material.  Experts analyze genetic material using the TrueAllele program in order to single out individuals who are linked to the crime, and it has been used in sexual assault, homicide, and property destruction criminal trials.

Pennsylvania and several other states have widely adopted expert witness use of TrueAllele with several police departments and trial courts fully integrating the program.  The program has gained favor because of its ability to parse out individual DNA from multiple sources, which is a feature most crime labs are unable to accommodate.  TrueAllele’s DNA analysis is more thorough than competing tools, giving investigators better opportunity to single out suspects.  Despite the software’s growing acceptance in the legal system, defense attorneys in Pennsylvania have resisted its continued use because they are unable to gain access to TrueAllele’s source code.

Defense Attorneys Petition to Access TrueAllele’s Source Code

Defense attorneys for Michael Robinson, a man charged with shooting and killing two men in Allegheny, PA, argued that the hidden source code behind TrueAllele denied their client the opportunity to adequately confront all of the evidence against him.  Robinson’s attorneys, like others before them, argued that the mysterious software program may provide DNA results which police and prosecutors find useful, but its reliability and accuracy cannot be adequately tested without other experts fully analyzing the code which the program uses to parse out genetic material.

TrueAllele has not been in circulation for very long, and defense attorneys claim that without verification by independent experts there are too many unanswered questions about its accuracy to trust.  DNA evidence, which is heavily used in criminal trials, was the center of a scandal last May when the FBI admitted to providing inaccurate expert witness testimony at hundreds of trials due to faulty tools of analysis, and defense attorneys have shown a hesitancy to accept forensic analysis technology at face value.

TureAllele’s creator, computer scientist Mark Perlin, has consistently resisted sharing his source code by arguing it would be economically disadvantageous for his company to do so.  Currently Mr. Perlin’s company Cybergenetics is the only one using the software, and he does not want to disclose trade secrets as part of a criminal trial.

Pennsylvania Judge Protects DNA Software Source Code

In response to requests by attorneys for Michael Robinson who requested the TrueAllele source code be revealed as part of their cross-examination of prosecutor DNA expert witnesses, Judge Jill E. Rangos said the defense did not sufficiently demonstrate the need for the source code.  According to Judge Rangos, requiring Cybergenetics to disclose the source code has “the potential to cause great harm” because of it is a highly valuable trade secret which no other company is able to duplicate at this time.  Further, Judge Rangos said that revealing the source code is not “the lynchpin to undermining the Commonwealth’s case” against Robinson, and therefore the defense does not have sufficient reason to put Mr. Perlin’s business at risk by exposing his code.

Robinson’s defense team publically disagreed with the ruling, maintaining that defendants have a 6th Amendment right to adequately confront witnesses, and in this case that means challenging the foundation of the technology used by expert witnesses who provide DNA testimony.  Perlin maintains that experts do not even use the source code, but simply rely on the technology to produce a result after they input data and attorneys can safely test the extent of the expert’s knowledge and methodology without access to the underlying code of the software.

Judge Rangos’s ruling echoes the result from a handful of other criminal courts across Pennsylvania and other states, so for now DNA expert witnesses can safely use TrueAllele without Cybergenetics revealing the protected source code.

Dueling Experts Contribute to Mistrial in Case Against Baltimore Officer who Arrested Freddie Gray

A Baltimore area judge has declared a mistrial against the first police officer to face prosecution for the death of Freddie Gray after jurors could not reach a verdict after more than 16 hours of deliberations.  While many factors can contribute to juror deadlock, the emotionally charged case featured several conflicting expert witness statements, none of which was convincing enough to sway the entire jury towards conviction.

First Officer Trial in Freddie Gray Case Ends with Mistrial

Baltimore police officer William G. Porter was the first of six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, a suspect who died in police custody in April of this year.  Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal neck injury while shackled in a Baltimore PD van, earned the national spotlight when protests over his death turned to riots by angry citizens of predominantly black Baltimore neighborhoods who expressed frustration about law enforcement brutality against African American citizens.  Porter, who is also black, denied racially motivated treatment of Gray and maintained that he and his fellow officers were unaware of the seriousness of the 25-year-old injuries at the time of his death.

During the trial, prosecutors called medical expert witnesses in an effort to convince jurors that Officer Porter – along with his colleagues – acted inappropriately by failing to properly secure Gray in the back of the police van, and, more importantly, failing to call for medical help when the victim’s injuries became apparent.  Attorneys for William Porter called counter-experts in police training and medical fields to dispute the prosecution’s position and argue the defendant was not responsible for the tragic accident which took Gray’s life.

Prosecution in Freddie Gray Case Calls Expert Witnesses

During the prosecution’s case against Baltimore officer William Porter attorneys for the state argued the six police officials had an opportunity to prevent Freddie Gray’s death by taking better precautions and by responding to Gray’s injuries in a timely manner, but failed on both accounts.  Neither side contests the fact that the van Gray was placed in upon his arrest made a total of 6 stops before officers requested medical attention Gray’s injuries, but what is contested is where along those 6 stops the victim suffered the fatal injury.  Prosecutors argue Gray suffered the injury early in the trip – sometime after the second stop – which would give police officers ample time to respond to his injuries.

To support their case prosecutors called Dr. Carol Allan, the medical examiner who performed Gray’s autopsy, as a forensic expert witness.  Dr. Allan told jurors that her expert analysis of the case concluded Gray was injured sometime between the 2nd and the 4th stop of the van, and believes that the police acted with criminal negligence by failing to recognize the severity of the situation after the 4th stop.  According to Dr. Allan had Gray received prompt medical attention after the 4th stop then he may not have died in the police van, suggesting Porter and his fellow officers failed in their opportunity to request timely medical attention.

Dr. Allan’s testimony was buttressed by Illinois neurosurgeon and medical expert witness Dr. Morris Marc Soriano who told the court that immediate medical attention could have saved Freddie Gray’s life.  A final medical expert for prosecutors was paramedic Angelique Herbert who responded to the scene after Porter and his fellow officers finally called for medical attention.  According to Herbert, by the time she arrived at the scene Freddie Gray was already beyond saving.  Defense attorneys responded to the testimony by prosecution experts with police tactic and forensic expert witnesses who told the court there was nothing Officer Porter could have, or should have, done differently during Gray’s arrest and detention.

Defense Attorneys in Freddie Gray Officer Trial Use Expert Testimony

Early in the defense’s case, attorneys for William Porter called Timothy Longo, a police chief in Charlottesville, Virginia with more than 35-years of experience as an officer, as a police tactics expert witness.  According to Longo, Officer Porter exercised reasonable discretion and good judgment considering the circumstances by detaining a resistant suspect and by informing the van’s driver of the need for medical attention at an appropriate time.  Longo addressed allegations that Porter should have buckled Gray in by saying the arresting officers are required to use circumstance and discretion when faced with orders issued by Baltimore PD requiring detainees be buckled because those rules “don’t create a higher standard in criminal or civil proceedings.  They’re clearly administrative in purpose.”

Longo also told jurors that Officer Porter could have gotten on the radio sooner to request medical attention, but ultimately was acting under the authority of his fellow officer Caesar Goodson who was driving the van and in charge of the operation.  Defense attorneys also called neurosurgeon Dr. Matthew Ammerman as a medical expert witness to tell jurors there is nothing Porter could have done had he called for medical attention right away.  According to Dr. Ammerman’s forensic testimony, Gray’s neck injury was catastrophic and immediately paralyzed his ability to breathe, speak, and move.  Dr. Ammerman said this injury must have occurred after the fourth stop because Gray could still communicate at that time.

Jurors were unable to reach a verdict against Officer Porter after more than 16 hours of deliberations.  The State has an opportunity to retry the officer, but has not announced a decision at this time.  All of the other officers, including Caesar Goodson, will face criminal prosecution in the near future for their role.

Facebook Killer Trial in Florida Features Expert Witness Testimony

The trial of the “Facebook killer” in Miami, Florida has turned to expert witnesses on both sides who will argue over questions about forensic evidence and the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime.  The case, which gained national attention due to a graphic Facebook image posted by the killer, will likely turn on the ability of attorneys on both sides to use expert testimony effectively during the trial.

Facebook Murder Trial Underway in Miami

In 2013 Derek Medina was arrested for fatally shooting his wife after he posted a graphic photo of her dead body on his Facebook webpage.  Prosecutors allege Medina murdered 27-year-old Jennifer Alfonso by shooting her eight times during an argument between the couple before he uploaded the picture onto Facebook.  According to witnesses who knew the couple, Medina and Alfonso had a contentious on-again-off-again relationship which featured a marriage, a divorce, and a re-marriage before the fatal argument took place two years ago.

Medina has not denied killing his wife, but responded to the allegations by claiming he acted in self-defense on the night of the murder.  Attorneys for Medina told jurors during opening arguments Alfonso abused drugs, battered her husband, and engaged in Satan worship which caused the defendant to fear for his life.  According to Medina, who was an undefeated 200-pound amateur boxer, his wife had been attacking him at the time of the shooting which caused him to react aggressively in fear for his life.

Both sides have submitted expert witness testimony to present during the course of Medina’s trial which will analyze forensic evidence at the crime scene and Medina’s state of mind in order to present jurors with a complete analysis of the facts surrounding Jennifer Alfonso’s death.

Forensic Expert Witnesses Take Stand in Facebook Killer Trial

After showing jurors graphic photos to introduce them to the scene inside the home Medina and Alfonso shared, prosecutors told jurors the victim never attacked the defendant and was not killed justifiably in self-defense.  To bolster their argument, the prosecution called a crime scene investigator expert witness who was first to respond to the scene of the crime and gather evidence of the murder.  The forensic expert told the court that evidence from the crime scene was consistent with the prosecution’s theory Jennifer Alfonso was attempting to cower away from Medina at the time she was killed and not attacking him as the defendant claimed.

To reinforce the argument, prosecutors called Miami-Dade Crime Scene Detective Anabella Pasqua as a crime scene expert witness.  On the stand, Det. Pasqua told the court, “My conclusion was that the source of the bloodshed was stationary and the source of the bloodshed was also lower than the area where the blood spatter was located.”  Detective Pasqua’s conclusions are also consistent with the prosecution’s theory that the victim was cowering down in a corner of the kitchen in a stationary position while the defendant shot her eight times.

Defense attorney Saam Zangeneh vigorously questioned both of the prosecution’s expert witnesses on crime scene analysis by pointing out flaws in their investigation techniques, including the failure to analyze blood splatter on a kitchen rug which could support the defendant’s claim that the victim had been the initial aggressor.  With the prosecution wrapping up its case early this week, defense attorneys for Medina will open their case with an expert witness in battered spouse syndrome.

Battered Spouse Syndrome Expert Witness to Testify in Facebook Murder Case

Before the second day of Derek Medina’s murder trial Judge Yvonne Colodny announced she would reverse an earlier decision and grant the defense’s request for an expert witness on battered spouse syndrome to testify.  Judge Colodny had initially denied the request for a battered spouse expert witness because she was concerned the expert would make conclusions about the facts of the case, but after reconsidering the motion she told defense attorneys they will be permitted to call their expert under strict conditions.

According to Judge Colodny the defense expert will be permitted to explain to jurors the nature of battered spouse syndrome, but will not be allowed to discuss the facts of Medina’s crime.  The battered spouse expert witness will only be able to testify in hypothetical terms which will allow jurors to better understand the conditions which allegedly satisfy battered spouse syndrome without having their opinion swayed by an expert’s conclusion about whether or not Medina legally acted in self-defense when he shot his wife.

The defense will present its case later this week when the prosecution has rested.  Prosecutors spent several days presenting testimony from police investigators who visited the scene and spoke with Medina after the crime before showing jurors surveillance footage which suggested Alfonso was not aggressive at the time of the shooting.  Defense attorneys have not announced if Medina will testify, but will use experts in an effort to show jurors the victim was not stationary during the argument and the defendant’s state of mind was impacted by years of abuse to make him believe he was defending himself.

Man Accused of Killing Adrian Peterson’s Son Uses Medical Experts During Trial

Earlier this week a jury in South Dakota convicted the man accused of killing the son of National Football League Star Adrian Peterson of 2nd degree murder despite testimony by several defense experts that attempted to cast doubt on the cause of death.  Throughout the trial both prosecutors and defense attorneys presented several medical expert witnesses who disputed the cause of death and culpability of the defendant.

Expert Witnesses Used in Trial of Man Accused with Killing Adrian Peterson’s Son

Joseph Patterson, 29, was found guilty of 2nd degree murder for killing 2-year-old Tyrese Robert Ruffin, the young son of NFL star Adrian Peterson.  In 2013 Patterson was the boyfriend of Ruffin’s mother and was accused of murder after the child died of blunt force trauma to his head.  Prosecutors alleged that Patterson had violently abused Tyrese, delivering four blows to the boy’s head that caused the fatal trauma.

To support their contention, prosecutors called medical expert witness Donald Habbe, a forensic pathologist, to explain the results of Ruffin’s autopsy to the jurors.  Habbe told the jurors that the four wounds on Tyrese Ruffin’s head were consistent with blunt force trauma.  Habbe went on to testify that bleeding in the brain and back of the eye which caused Ruffin’s death were likely the result of the blows that left the marks on the boy’s skull.  According to Habbe’s expert opinion, the cause of the boy’s death was not accidental, but was a homicide caused by child abuse.

Defense attorneys for Patterson responded with medical experts to counter the prosecution’s claims that Ruffin was murdered by introducing other possible causes of the injuries the boy suffered.

Defense Attorneys for Joseph Patterson Present Expert Testimony

In response to the prosecution’s allegations that Patterson delivered the fatal blows to Tyrese Ruffin, defense attorneys called medical experts to present alternative theories of the boy’s death.  Dr. Waney Squire, a neuropathologist from Oxford, England who specializes in injuries to children, took the stand after examining Ruffin’s brain samples.  According to Dr. Squire, Ruffin’s brain samples did not indicate a traumatic injury suffered directly to the skull, and the blood in the boy’s brain was not nearly at the levels she would expect if the 2-year-old had been struck or shaken.  Instead, Dr. Squire suggested the forensic evidence was consistent with evidence of a child choking to death while being given CPR – supporting Patterson’s claim that he had attempted to revive the boy who was choking on a fruit snack.

Dr. Roland Auer, a neurologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, took the stand to directly refute a prosecution expert who had concluded that brain hemorrhaging is a clear sign of trauma.  According to Dr. Auer, the physical markings evident on the boy’s body were not severe enough to support the type of injuries that would have been sufficient to cause fatal brain trauma.  Like Dr. Squire, Dr. Auer told jurors that the prosecution’s medical experts had been too hasty when coming to the conclusion that Tyrese Ruffin’s death was the result of deliberate and abusive blunt force trauma administered by the defendant.

Ultimately, jurors were not convinced by the efforts of Patterson’s defense expert witnesses and convicted the defendant 2nd degree murder for Tyrese Ruffin’s death.  Patterson’s conviction carries a mandatory life sentence, which he will begin serving after the formal conclusion of his criminal proceedings.

Joseph Patterson Prosecutors Question Cost of Expensive Expert Witnesses

Throughout the course of the Patterson prosecution more than 12 medical expert witnesses had testified about the disputed cause of death of 2-year-old Tyrese Ruffin, raising concerns about the rising costs of expert witnesses.  Prosecutors told the media that they generally use doctors or forensic examiners who had directly interacted with the victim during treatment or after death, but defense teams are more likely to use high priced experts to examine the evidence of the crime well after it happened.  State attorneys prosecuting Patterson have an annual budget of $2,500 per year to pay experts which limits their ability to hire the same type of outside expert witnesses that defense lawyers have access to.

Even public defender expert witness budgets can dwarf prosecution allocations, allowing for the pursuit of high priced experts to take the stand for defendants.  In the Patterson case, Dr. Squire received more than $10,000 for her work while Dr. Auer was paid at a rate of $400 per hour to investigate and testify about Tyrese Ruffin’s death.  Such an inequitable balance in ability to hire expert witnesses leads to concerns that defense attorneys can solicit high priced hired guns to sway jurors with elite credentials that prosecution experts cannot match.

While the highly credentialed medical experts testifying on behalf of Joseph Patterson were not enough to sway the jury in this case, the budget discrepancy that allows defense attorneys to pursue higher priced experts is a concern shared by prosecutors across the country who struggle to find experts who fit their budget.

New Hampshire Prep School Case Features DNA Expert Witnesses

The high profile rape trial of a former prep school student ended without a rape conviction despite DNA evidence presented last week by forensic expert witnesses called by prosecutors to connect the defendant to his alleged crime.  While jurors were unwilling to convict the defendant of rape, they found the DNA to be enough to issue a guilty verdict in the lesser charge of having consensual sex with a minor.

Prosecution Presents Evidence in Prep School Rape Case

Prosecutors in New Hampshire rested their case against Owen Labrie, a graduate of the state’s elite prep school St. Paul’s who was accused of raping a 15-year-old female classmate prior to his graduation.  During the prosecution’s case, Concord Police Detective Julie Curtin, who investigated the case, took the stand to tell the jury that Labrie had admitted to consensual touching and kissing, and told police that he had prepared for intercourse by putting on a condom.  However, Labrie denied he had sex with, or raped, the alleged victim.

Several witnesses present at the scene of the alleged assault testified for the prosecution, but the most compelling evidence of Labrie’s involvement with the teenager came from a forensic expert witness who connected the defendant’s DNA to the victim’s underwear.

DNA Expert Witnesses Connect Defendant to Alleged Victim

In wrapping up its case against Labrie, the prosecution called two criminalists from the New Hampshire State Police Laboratory to serve as forensic expert witnesses.  Kevin G. McMahon testified first and told jurors that in his expert opinion, DNA testing found on the alleged victim’s underwear suggested a “strong indication of semen” that was connected to the defendant.  McMahon’s expert testimony was supported by criminalist Kate Swango who performed tests on the girl’s underwear.

According to Swango, her testing demonstrated that Labrie’s DNA was present on the underwear “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.”  The prosecution expert witnesses combined to argue that Labrie’s DNA sample, which was likely semen, was present on the young girl’s undergarments.  According to prosecutors this evidence, combined with the girl’s testimony that she did not consent to the sexual encounter, demonstrated a case for rape.

DNA Expert Witnesses Fail to Secure Rape Conviction

Defense attorneys for Labrie took both of the prosecution expert witnesses to task for concluding that the DNA found on the underpants was, in fact, semen and not some other liquid such as saliva or sweat.  Under testimony Swango, after consulting her and McMahon’s notes, admitted that the expert witnesses had not determined the exact source of the defendant’s DNA.  Calling the expert testimony into question, attorneys for Labrie argued to the jury that the young man had engaged in some consensual sexual activity, but had not had intercourse with the girl or acted against her stated will.

After all the evidence was presented, jurors issued a compromise verdict that declined to find Labrie guilty of rape, but did determine that he did engage in sexual activity with a girl who was below the age of consent.  Given the result of the trial, it appears that the jurors placed more emphasis on the uncertainty of the situation as told by the victim and defendant than on the forensic evidence discussed by the prosecution’s expert witnesses.

Michigan Man Granted New Murder Trial After Attorney Failed to Use Expert Witnesses

The Michigan Supreme Court has granted a new trial to a man convicted of the death of a child under his care because his trial attorney failed to call expert witnesses in his defense.  During the initial trial in 2012, prosecutors used a handful of expert witnesses to suggest the defendant had abused the child, but the defense attorney did not respond with any experts who would propose an alternative theory of the injuries.

Michigan Man Receives New Murder Trial

Defendant Leo Ackley, 28, was convicted in 2012 for the 2011 death of 3-year-old Baylee Stenman, his girlfriend’s daughter who was left in his care.  Baylee died of subdural hematoma caused by head trauma that prosecutors believe was inflicted by Ackley while he was looking after the toddler.  Ackley, who has maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment, argues that the girl fell off of her bed during a nap, and the death was a tragic accident instead of an act of child abuse.  During trial, prosecutors called five forensic and medical expert witnesses to the stand in order to explain the likely cause of the injuries that killed Baylee, but Ackley’s defense attorney did not provide a single expert to refute the testimony.

According to a unanimous ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, the failure to call a single rebuttal expert witness to support the defendant’s theory of the crime qualified as ineffective assistance of counsel.  Given the failure of Ackley’s defense to consult an expert witness when medical expertise was critical to the outcome of the case, the Michigan Court granted a new murder trial to be conducted with a different attorney, giving Ackley the opportunity to fully explain his position in a court of law.  The decision was welcomed by Ackley’s family and his new attorney, Andrew Rodenhouse, who said that the Court was sending a message about the importance of incorporating expert witnesses into a complete defense.  Rodenhouse told reporters, “That’s really what the court is saying … telling trial attorneys, defense attorneys who do these things that you got to do a little more than just show up on the day of the trial. You got to actually do your homework and be prepared.”

Michigan Supreme Court Focuses on Use of Expert Witnesses in New Trial

In vacating Ackely’s conviction and remanding the case for a new trial, the Michigan Supreme Court emphasized the importance of expert witnesses during trials where the source of a victim’s injury were a point of contention.  Writing that expert testimony would have been “critical in this case to explain whether the cause of the child’s death was intentional or accidental,” the court found that the attorney’s failure to consult an expert, “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and there was a reasonable probability that this error affected the outcome of the trial.”

The Court went on to explain the importance of an expert in Ackley’s original trial, ““Counsel’s failure to engage expert testimony rebutting the state’s expert testimony and failure to become versed in the technical subject matter constituted a constitutional flaw in the representation, not reasonable strategy. Given the centrality of expert testimony to the prosecution’s proofs and the highly contested nature of the underlying medical issue, counsel’s single error of failing to consult an expert who could meaningfully assist him constituted ineffective assistance.”  Ultimately, because at the case involved an “unexplained and unwitnessed” death of a child, a complete defense necessitated expert witness involvement and the attorney’s failure to produce such evidence constituted a failure that warrants a second trial to correct.

Ackley is currently serving a life sentence for his conviction, and will likely remain in prison during the course of his new trial.  Prosecutors have expressed confidence that they are able to earn a second conviction on the strength of the evidence, but without question Ackley’s defense team will present at least one forensic medical expert witness to contend that Baylee’s tragic death was the result of an accident and not child abuse.

Smithsonian Forensic Expert Witness Testifies in Trial of Parents Accused of Causing Infant’s Death

A forensic anthropologist working for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History took the stand as a bone expert witness in the murder trial of a Virginia couple accused of killing their seven-month old son and burying his remains in their backyard.  Prosecutors hope to use the disturbing testimony about the condition of the infant’s remains to put the parents behind bars for life as punishment for their extreme child neglect.

Virginia Couple Charged with Death of Infant Son

In 2011, police investigators responding to an alleged burglary found a severely neglected 6-year-old girl in a trailer belonging to Brian and Shannon Gore of Gloucester County, Virginia.  The girl was found naked, emaciated, covered in her own feces, and trapped inside an upside-down crib that served as a makeshift cage.  The trapped child was the Gore’s daughter, and both parents are currently serving 30-year jail sentences after pleading guilty in 2013 to aggravated malicious wounding and child abuse. While building a case against the Gores for the abuse and neglect of their daughter, investigators also found the remains of an infant buried underneath the shed outside of the couple’s home.

A medical examiner in Richmond determined that the baby was a boy at least 7 months old who had been born to the Gores in 2007 and dead by March of 2008.  The medical examiner could not make a determination about cause of death, so prosecutors sent the remains to the Smithsonian team for a complete analysis.  After receiving the autopsy results, prosecutors charged the Gores for killing the child by neglecting him, and called the lead researcher from the Smithsonian as a forensic expert witness to explain how the infant died.

Forensic Expert Witness Points to Evidence of Child Neglect

Dr. Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution took the stand in the Gore’s murder trial to speak for the seven-month infant who never had a chance at life because of the extreme neglect of his parents.  Dr. Owsley examined the remains of the infant, and testified that it was his opinion that the baby suffered from extreme malnutrition because he was not getting enough to eat.  Although Owsley did not offer a cause of death, his expert testimony suggested that the brittleness of the child’s bones pointed to malnutrition and neglect.

Owsley told jurors that the baby’s bones were thin, fragile, and showing signs of osteoporosis because the body had been forced to rob the skeleton of the nutrients necessary to support the infant’s vital organs.  Owsley could not rule out an illness causing the death, but said that the extreme tooth decay and lack of a birth defect pointed towards malnutrition.  Further, expert forensic analysis by the Smithsonian team revealed that the boy’s skull was flat in the back, which indicated the child had spent extensive time lying on his back without being cared for.  Owsley also testified that the skull had a small fracture because the bone was eroding due to lack of nutrients from food.

Attorneys for the Gores argue that Owsley’s expert testimony is biased against the couple, and based on the treatment of the daughter who was found malnourished and in a cage in the couple’s home.  The defense argued that the couple cared for the child, held the body for days after his death, and even fashioned him a coffin to be buried in.  Arguing that Owsley relied on questionable evidence, the Gore’s lawyer attempted to discredit his expert opinion and convince jurors that there is insufficient evidence to connect the couple to neglect and child abuse.

Forensic Expert Witness Claims Death was Suicide in Utah Murder Trial

The case against a Utah doctor accused of murdering his wife hit a snag this week when a forensic expert witness testified that the wounds the victim suffered were likely self-inflicted, suggesting the death was a suicide.  The expert testimony is the latest dramatic turn in the murder trial of Johnny Brickman Wall, and gives defense attorneys a compelling argument for sufficient reasonable doubt to warrant an acquittal.

Utah Doctor Accused of Murdering His Wife

In 2011, Uta von Schwedler, the 49-year-old ex-wife of Johnny Wall, was found dead in a bathtub full of water in her Utah home.  The subsequent murder investigation turned to Wall due to the couple’s messy divorce and bitter battle for custody of the four children. After examining all the available evidence, prosecutors charged the 51-year-old Wall with first-degree felony murder in von Schwedler’s death, and have built a case arguing that he attacked his ex-wife in her home and left her body in the bathtub.

Police and prosecutors point to defensive wounds on von Schwedler’s arms and an injection mark that was covered by a stab wound – where Wall allegedly injected her with Xanax – as evidence that the woman was murdered by her ex-husband, however, the cause of death has not been definitively settled. Throughout the investigation and trial, Wall and his defense team have argued that von Schwedler’s death was a suicide, and called upon forensic expert Dr. Judy Melinek to cast doubt on the conclusion that von Schwedler was murdered.

Forensic Expert Suggests Victim Committed Suicide

Giving genesis to the defense’s argument that von Schwedler’s death was a suicide rather than a homicide was the uncertainty by the Utah assistant medical examiner who listed her death as “undetermined” due to difficulty ascertaining the cause.  Although the medical examiner did not take a position, the defense called forensic expert witness Dr. Judy Melinek took the stand to present an argument that von Schwedler injured herself and took Xanex before drowning in her bath tub.

According to Dr. Melinek, the cuts on von Schwedler’s arms that prosecutors claimed were defense wounds were likely self-administered.  Dr. Melinek observed that the wounds were parallel, which usually indicates a suicide attempt rather than defensive wounds, which are usually at an angle or horizontal on the arm.  Further, Melinek informed jurors that the cuts showed sign of hesitation, which a suicidal person does when “they are testing to see what they can tolerate.”

Dr. Melinek also pointed out that there were no signs of a struggle at the scene, which, in her expert opinion, indicates von Schwedler was not attacked.  When asked on cross-examination if the scene was staged, Dr. Melinek responded that it did not appear to be, citing a lack of Xanax pills at the scene to further the appearance of a suicide.  Overall, Dr. Melinek’s expert opinion was that von Schwedler took Xanax, slit her own wrists, got into the bathtub and drowned – leaving the defendant Wall out of the equation.

Defense Seeks Reasonable Doubt with Expert Testimony

In offering Dr. Melinek as a forensic expert witness, Wall’s defense team has presented a compelling argument to reasonably doubt the prosecution’s claims that the defendant killed his wife.  The legal standard for conviction in criminal trials allows jurors to convict only if the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, and Dr. Melinek’s expert testimony provides a strong basis for doubt.  Even if jurors think it is more likely that the prosecution is right, the existence of a second theory of von Schwedler’s death that is supported by an experienced forensic expert witness could weaken the jury’s belief in guilt sufficiently to acquit Wall.  Dr. Melinek might be wrong, and might even have failed to convince jurors that the death was a suicide, but her expert testimony that von Schwedler’s death was not a homicide casts an impossible-to-ignore shadow over the prosecution’s case.