Having a client declared indigent for the purpose of attaining expert assistance

In some cases where an attorney has been retained, the defendant may exhaust their funds and not be able to pay for expert assistance that is needed in the case. The ability for a defendant to access expert witness assistance is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but attorneys for may be unsure about the process for obtaining funding  for expert assistance when the client has become indigent during the course of the representation.

When defendants who have been able to hire counsel become indigent over the course of representation, they have to motion in order to be allowed the usage of state funds to hire investigators and expert witnesses. To help attorneys secure expert assistance on behalf of an indigent client, IDS has put together a template motion for indigency.  The motion can be filed as a stand-alone motion or it can be incorporated into the motion for funding for an expert that is described below. The template can be accessed here.

In addition to the motion for indigency, counsel in non-capital cases must submit Form AOC-G-309 and an ex parte motion for the appointment of an expert in order to obtain funding for an expert for an indigent client. In potentially capital cases, Form IDS-028 must be submitted along with the motion for indigency to the Office of the Capital Defender. These forms and sample motions for the appointment of an expert can be found here.

IDS thanks Davis & Davis, Attorneys at Law for their assistance with this motion!

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Daubert in 12 Minutes

If you are working on a case where expert opinion testimony is anticipated, a quick primer on NC Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert standard is now available. Andrew DeSimone of the Appellate Defender’s Office has recorded Daubert in 12 Minutes which addresses the admissibility of expert testimony in North Carolina.

The primer discusses the 2011 changes to Rule 702 and the implications of those changes in criminal cases. DeSimone covers the relevance inquiry and “fit test,” the qualifications of the expert, and the 3-pronged reliability test from the federal rule and Daubert. DeSimone discusses the McGrady opinion’s application of the reliability test.

The program also is available for download on the Experts page of the IDS Forensic website.

Daubert in 12 Minutes with Audio from Sarah Olson on Vimeo.

 

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Houston in the Blind

Blind studies and procedures are the gold standard of evaluating the quality and reliability of scientific results. Unfortunately, this has long been lacking in forensic science. Fortunately, strides are being made to introduce blind testing to forensics, most notably in the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC).

Currently, forensic scientists are tested periodically on their knowledge and ability through proficiency tests. However, scientists typically are aware they are completing a proficiency test and not case work. This allows for the Hawthorne effect to play a role in the testing, or the phenomena of a person behaving differently when they know they are being observed. Blind testing in forensic science will allow for blind samples to be included with case work in a manner that scientists cannot distinguish between a blind and a real case. This will help distinguish whether or not a laboratory adheres to guidelines and whether best practices are used in a day-to-day setting, as opposed to simply during an anticipated exam.

This article describes the efforts of Dr. Peter Stout, the HFSC’s chief executive officer (and former member of the NC Forensic Science Advisory Board), to implement a “blinds program.” So far, 329 blind samples have been integrated into normal casework in the firearms, toxicology, DNA, fingerprint, and digital forensic sections of the lab. In 2018, the lab plans to grow the program to 800 blind tests per year, or 5 percent of the lab’s workload.

Disguising a blind as a case sample is not a simple task, as the Forensic Magazine article describes. In addition to the challenge of creating a case submission that appears authentic, another particularly challenging aspect has been determining whether the blind samples could be searched in databases like AFIS, NIBIN, and CODIS.

At the HFSC, no errors have yet been reported in the testing of a blind. Use of blind tests will allow the lab to begin reporting error rates and confidence intervals, which will strengthen the testimony of analysts and allow them to answer questions about reliability of their work.

If you’ve made it this far in the post and are still wondering about the title, “Houston, in the blind” refers to a phrase used by astronauts when they aren’t receiving any response from ground control. The phrase indicates that they will continue to communicate, not knowing if ground control is receiving their message. My hope for forensic science is that communications about blind testing will not be “in the blind.”

 

 

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Happy National DNA Day!

If you handle cases involving DNA evidence and don’t know the story of Lukis Anderson, stop what you are doing and take a few minutes to observe National DNA Day by reading this great article by Katie Worth of The Marshall Project.

Mr. Anderson was a homeless man living in San Jose, CA whose DNA was found on the fingernail of murder victim Raveesh Kumra. As a result of the DNA match, Mr. Anderson was charged with murder and spent several months in jail on that charge before the innocent explanation was uncovered for his DNA being on a murder victim who was unknown to him.

Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Kumra were attended to by the same team of paramedics on the night of the crime. After Mr. Anderson was transported to the hospital, the paramedics responded to the scene at Mr. Kumra’s home. Had Mr. Anderson not had an airtight alibi established in his medical records, showing he was in the hospital at the time that Mr. Kumra was murdered, it is likely his case would have had an outcome other than dismissal.

The Marshall Project article explains the phenomenon of DNA transfer that Mr. Anderson’s case illustrates. There has been scientific research on DNA transfer showing that 1 in 5 of us walk around with someone else’s DNA under our fingernails. People shed 50 million skin cells a day, and research has demonstrated how easy it is for DNA to be transferred to an object that a person has never touched. Because techniques for analyzing DNA have become more and more sensitive, it is possible now to develop a profile with a small number of cells – cells which are easily transferred.

If you’d like additional information about DNA transfer or the challenges of interpreting very small amounts of DNA, please contact me (Sarah.R.Olson@nccourts.org) and I’d be happy to discuss further and share some articles with you.

 

 

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National Forensic College 2018 announced

The 5th annual NACDL and Cardozo School of Law National Forensic College (NFC), presented in collaboration with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Defender Services Training Division, will take place Sunday, June 3 through Friday, June 8, 2018 in New York City.

The goal of the college is to train experienced litigators in state and federal defender offices, both trial and post-conviction, to litigate complex forensic science issues strategically and with the support of the nation’s leading law firms and experts. Afterwards, attendees are expected to train legal professionals in their jurisdictions in these areas and work with fellow lawyers to develop successful litigation strategies to address forensic issues.

Topics for 2018 will include: False Confessions, Pattern Evidence, Digital Evidence, DNA (including an advanced track), Eyewitness Identification, Toxicology, plus instruction on statistics in forensics and an update on ligation using the PCAST report.

Attendance is by invitation only, but private attorneys can apply to attend. The cost to attend for private attorneys is $999 for the week, plus the cost of housing. The application and additional information is available here.

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Royal Society Forensic Primers

Both experienced and newer attorneys should be aware of two primers, released by The Royal Society, on forensic DNA analysis and forensic gait analysis, available here. Although these reports were intended for use by courts in the UK, they provide important information for attorneys in the United States. This blog post intends to give a brief overview of notable sections of the primers.

Within the DNA analysis primer, attorneys may find the information on Y chromosome DNA analysis and mitochondrial DNA analysis helpful. Y chromosome DNA analysis (p. 11) is a technique that is useful when there is a mix of male and female DNA, such as in sexual assault cases. Mitochondrial DNA analysis could be helpful in cases where DNA evidence is small or breaking down, for example in a cold case or post-conviction case (p.12). Mitochondrial DNA is present in a cell greater amounts than nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to child, and is nearly identical in maternal relatives, and the Y chromosome is nearly identical in paternal relatives, so it should be noted there are greater odds of multiple people matching a mitochondrial or Y-STR profile by chance or due to relatedness.

Another section of the primer that may be of interest is the discussion of contamination (p.32) and DNA transfer (p. 46). Contamination is “the introduction of DNA, or biological material containing DNA, to a sample after a (trained) responsible official has control or the crime scene.” (p.32). To prevent contamination, precautions should be taken such as following the international standard for DNA-free items.

The primer notes that once there is an appropriately-handled DNA sample, the forensic scientist should interpret the DNA evidence sample first, document the findings, and then the scientist should compare it to known samples of DNA (p.34). The process should be done in that order to avoid confirmation bias. The primer also contains an explanation of DNA statistics that may be useful for attorneys.

Lastly, The Royal Society also released a notable primer on forensic gait analysis.  Forensic gait analysis evaluates a person’s manner and mannerisms in their walk and compares it to a recorded video to determine if it is the same walk and as such the same person. This type of evidence is more common in the UK where video surveillance is more prevalent. However, the primer’s assessment of this type of evidence is interesting as the assessment could be applied to other novel techniques. While the primer notes that there are accepted clinical uses for gait analysis by various types of health professionals, that doesn’t mean that the technique has a validated forensic use. The primer finds that there is not enough scientific evidence to determine one’s identity solely from their walk because it is not certain that people don’t share walk patterns, there is no known error rate or standardized methodology, and there are no published black-box studies on the technique’s reliability and repeatability.

 

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The Myth of the Reliability Test

UVA Law Professor Brandon Garrett and Innocence Project Director of Strategic Litigation M. Chris Fabricant wrote a law review article in the Fordham Law Review in March 2018 that examines whether Rule 702 is in fact functioning as a reliability test. The article is available for free download here. They looked at hundreds of state court criminal cases and found that “courts have largely neglected the critical language concerning reliability in the Rule.”

The article has a useful table that lists all 229 cases where admissibility of expert testimony was challenged under the 2000 revisions to Rule 702 in state courts. The table includes the type of evidence, whether the evidence was admitted, and which party was the proponent of the evidence. For North Carolina, 14 case are listed.

In the majority of the cases cited, courts ruled that the evidence is admissible based on prior rulings admitting that type of evidence or the qualification of the expert. In many cases, courts found that the defendant did not adequately preserve reliability-related objections at trial. Thirty-four cases affirmed the exclusion of defense expert testimony. Sixteen cases ruled prosecution witnesses should have been excluded.

For attorneys who are considering making a challenge to expert testimony, this article gives the lay of the land for these types of challenges and makes the case for defense counsel needing to sufficiently preserve the record so these decisions are reviewable on appeal.

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