Excluding Unqualified Experts and Inadmissible Expert Testimony in Your Maryland Criminal Trial

Expert witnesses can make a huge difference in the outcome of a criminal trial. The law only allows experts to testify if their opinions are outside the general knowledge of an ordinary juror. In other words, they are probably opining about something scientific and/or technical outside the jury’s general familiarity and education. That unfamiliarity often leads jurors to afford expert opinions considerable weight. If you’re facing a criminal trial where the state plans to use an expert (or experts) as part of its case, you need a skilled Maryland criminal defense lawyer on your side. A knowledgeable advocate can help ensure that a proposed expert is qualified and that the testimony they give is allowed under the court’s limiting instructions.

There are many ways to blunt the prosecution’s use of expert testimony against you. A recent Montgomery County homicide trial illustrates the law that governs these legal arguments and court determinations.

The accused, G.J., was on trial in connection with a double murder in Burtonsville. According to prosecutors, the accused met with J.F. to pay a drug debt but, instead of paying, shot and killed J.F. and A.D., who had driven J.F. to the meeting. The police’s investigation determined that the killer shot the pair with a 9mm gun.

Police searched G.J.’s cousin’s home, where they found a dresser that contained G.J.’s birth certificate, Social Security card, health records… and a 9mm bullet.

Prosecutors sought to introduce opinion testimony from a firearms expert in G.J.’s trial. The expert sought to testify that the bullet retrieved from the dresser “had marks that were ‘consistent with the other fired cartridge cases’ found on the scene of the murder.”

The court OK’ed the expert, but limited his testimony to opining about “the class characteristics and the similarities between the two fired shell casings and the single unfired shell casing recovered in this matter.” More specifically, the court only permitted the state to elicit opinions from the firearms expert that “based on those similarities, [he] cannot rule out whether the three shell casings were chambered through the same firearm at some point in time.”

The expert did not stay within those bounds. He affirmatively testified that the bullet from the dresser and bullets from the gun used in killings “matched,” meaning that they had been “chambered and run through the [same] gun.”

The defense lawyer asked the judge to strike the expert’s entire testimony, but the court declined. The jury ultimately convicted G.J.

The Factors For Deciding When to Strike an Expert’s Testimony

The Appellate Court concluded that the firearms expert’s testimony should have been thrown out in its entirety. Maryland law uses a multi-factor analysis to determine whether or not the testimony of an expert who provided inadmissible opinions should be tossed completely. The factors are:

  1. whether the reference to the inadmissible evidence was repeated or whether it was a single, isolated statement;
  2. whether the reference was solicited by counsel, or was an inadvertent and unresponsive statement;
  3. whether the witness… is the principal witness upon whom the entire prosecution depends;
  4. whether credibility is a crucial issue; and
  5. whether a great deal of other evidence exists.

The state’s expert did not engage in a single, isolated violation; rather, he violated the judge’s limitations nine times, according to the Appellate Court. The court also concluded that the inadmissible opinion was not just some unresponsive comment, but rather was solicited by the prosecution based on the wording of a re-direct question posed to the expert.

Additionally, the firearms expert clearly was the “star” witness in the state’s case. The prosecution’s case was highly circumstantial and, as the Appellate Court noted, the “only physical evidence that placed [the accused] at the shooting was the fact that the casings found on the murder scene had marks that were similar to or a ‘match’ to the bullet found in the dresser.” Credibility was an issue and the rest of the prosecution’s case was not so strong as to render the expert’s testimony “irrelevant or marginal.”

In other words, the facts of G.J.’s trial checked all of the factor “boxes,” meaning the only way to provide a fair trial would have been to eliminate the expert’s testimony completely. Since the trial court did not do that, G.J. was entitled to a new trial.

Vindicating your rights, including the right to a fair trial, requires a lot of work, extensive attention to detail, and in-depth knowledge of the law and the rules of criminal procedure. If you’re under suspicion or on trial in a criminal matter, the knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to be the skillful and experienced advocate you need to protect your rights from the first interaction with police all the way through trial. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation to find out more about how we can assist you.

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