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State v. Miller, 2020 WL 7906643 (N.C. App. 2020)

Case (cite)
State v. Miller, 2020 WL 7906643 (N.C. App. 2020)
Year
2020
State
North Carolina
Type of proceeding
Appellate
Type of claim
Evidentiary
Expert evidence ruling reversing or affirming on appeal:
Admitted
What was the ruling?
Correct to Admit
Type of evidence at issue:
Firearms identification
Defense or Prosecution Expert
Prosecution
Name of expert(s) who were the subject of the ruling
Kathleen Clardy
Summary of reasons for ruling
The court held that because the trial court's ruling that the testimony was realiable was "a reasoned decision," it had to uphold the decision as not being an abuse of discretion. The court explained "the trial court understood that some scholars have questioned the reliability of this sort of testimony, and the court weighed that against Clardy's explanation of her principles and methods and her testimony about why she believed them to be reliable. The court's determination that Clardy's testimony satisfied Rule 702’s three-prong test, despite some evidence from Miller challenging the reliability of this type of expert testimony, was not arbitrary; it was a reasoned decision." The court further held that, regardless of reliability, there was no prejudice from admitting the expert testimony in light of the other evidence.
The jurisdiction’s standard for expert admissibility at the time – list all that apply: (Frye), (Daubert), (Post-2000 Rule 702), (Other)
Rule 702
Did lower court hold a hearing
No (extensive voir dire)
Names of prosecution expert(s) two testified at hearing
Names of defense expert(s) who testified at hearing (or None).
Discussion of 2009 NAS Report (NAS2009) or PCAST report (PCAST)
NAS2009; PCAST
Discussion of error rates / reliability
Y (not discussion but mention)
Frye Ruling
N
Limiting testimony ruling
N
Language imposed by court to limit testimony
N/A
Ruling based in prior precedent / judicial notice
N
Daubert ruling emphasizing – which factors – (list 1-5)
N/A
Ruling on qualifications of expert
N
Ruling on 702(a) – the expert will help / assist the jury
N
Ruling on 702(b) – the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data
N
Ruling on 702(c) – the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods
N
Ruling on 702(d) – reliable application of principles and methods to the facts of the case
N

Notes

Expert during voir dire: “When asked about the error rate for this type of ballistics identification, Clardy testified that “my error rate is zero percent,” but that there is no established error rate for the field as a whole. Miller questioned Clardy about the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report that criticized the scientific validity of firearms examination. Clardy responded that she disagreed with elements of the report and asserted that the report should be viewed with caution because it was created by academics rather than firearms examiners.”

 

Addressing the dissent: “Much of this purported dissent also reads more like a legal essay than an opinion. Our dissenting colleague thinks the science behind ballistic toolmark comparisons is of “questionably reliability” and thus would have excluded some of this expert’s testimony. Fair enough—the dissent contains an accurate recitation of some scientific literature and reasonable jurists can reach different results in discretionary rulings. That is the nature of judicial discretion.
13But importantly, appellate judges are not trial judges. We are no more qualified to evaluate a scientific issue than our colleagues in the trial division. And under the abuse of discretion standard, appellate judges cannot substitute their judgment for that of the trial court; we examine only whether the trial court’s ruling was “so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.” McGrady, 368 N.C. at 899, 787 S.E.2d at 15. The trial court’s decision here certainly was a reasoned one.”

 

NOTE: Dissent argues against the admissibility of firearms identification testimony.

 

Dissent on why this testimony may be misleading for jurors: “The State’s expert essentially opined, then, that her individual examinations are more reliable than those of her field as a whole, given that “the error rate … in firearms investigation … [is] currently being investigated by science.” This testimony “likely … shrouded [her opinion] with an aura of near infallibility.” . . . By permitting the State’s expert to opine that her personal error rate was “zero percent” without any testimony regarding the general error rate in the field, the trial court failed to exercise its gatekeeping authority and, in doing so, admitted testimony of questionable reliability. ”

 

“This testimony may have been misleading to the jury. First, while individual characteristic toolmarks do not appear in an entirely random manner, neither have they been scientifically established as “unique” to a particular firearm. See Ballistic Imaging at 3 (“A significant amount of research would be needed to scientifically determine the degree to which firearms-related toolmarks are unique or even to quantitatively characterize the probability of uniqueness.”). “The notion of uniqueness in forensic science is probabilistic and impossible to prove in a scientific sense, and this form of logic follows inductive reasoning.””