Maryland jurors place a lot of trust in DNA evidence. However, DNA evidence is actually fairly technical and testimony or arguments related to the evidence may be confusing—so confusing it can affect the outcome of a trial. What happens, for example, if a prosecutor makes incorrect arguments about critical DNA evidence?
In a recent case, that was just what was at issue. In October 2008, police found a man who had been shot in his side lying on his back next to a pick-up truck. The sergeant who found him asked questions to figure out what the man knew about the person who shot him. The victim gave short answers to offer a description and later died.
The police discovered that the defendant and his cousin had been in the same neighborhood as the victim at the time of death. The cousin lost sight of the defendant while the defendant went to meet a woman he’d met on a chat line. During that time, the police believed, the defendant shot the victim. The defendant was indicted for first-degree murder, robbery, theft and use of a handgun while committing a crime of violence.
He was convicted of second-degree murder. Among the witnesses presented at trial were the defendant’s cousin who had been walking in the neighborhood where the killing was and a DNA analyst. The analyst had samples taken from the truck, plus DNA profiles gotten from both the victim and the defendant.
The analyst testified that the defendant couldn’t be excluded as the source of DNA recovered from the truck where the shooting occurred. There was a partial DNA profile uncovered on the interior dashboard handle, but the analyst found that this could not have belonged to the defendant. One DNA profile was consistent with the victim’s while others belonged to other unknown people, but not the defendant.
There was only one sample to which the defendant could have contributed. The victim’s DNA was consistent with 14/15 tested locations, whereas the defendant’s was consistent with 11/15 tested locations. The analyst testified at trial that when determining whether someone contributed to a mixture of DNA in a sample, a statistic is developed to explain how likely that is. In this case, 1 out of 172 individuals in the African American population could have contributed to the mixture.
The prosecutor claimed that the defendant “left his DNA” in the truck and also explained that the jury had to consider probabilities of 1 out of 172. The prosecutor also claimed that the DNA analyst’s statistical analysis supported the theory he had put forward. The defendant asked for a mistrial on grounds that the prosecutor misrepresented the nature of the DNA evidence. The trial court denied his request and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction.
The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the question of whether it had been an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to deny the request for a mistrial, given the prosecutor’s incorrect statements about the statistical significant of the DNA evidence.
The appellate court explained that the trial court’s decision regarding mistrial would only be overturned if it had abused its discretion and there was prejudice to the defendant. In this case, the State’s DNA evidence had not shown definitively that the defendant’s DNA was found on the truck, only that he could not be excluded as a possible contributor. The State had misconstrued the evidence to the jury, making statements that implied his DNA was definitely in the truck.
The appellate court explained that public places great trust in DNA evidence—more trust than it places in any other type of evidence. Accordingly, the prosecutor’s misstatements were likely to have prejudiced the jury against the defendant. The appellate court noted that no one had witnessed the defendant shoot the victim or even seen him at the scene. Therefore the judgment of conviction was reversed and a new trial was granted.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to consult an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to construct a strong defense, including good arguments against the State’s evidence. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
Handgun Violence in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 20, 2013
What is the “rule of lenity” in Maryland? Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 25, 2013