Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

In this murder case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing two forensic pathologists to testify to expert opinions regarding the amount of blood discovered in the defendant’s house. Essentially, the experts testified that the significant amount of blood at the scene suggested that the victim would have required medical attention very quickly. The defendant argued that the trial court’s ruling was improper under Rule 702, specifically, that reliability had not been established. The three-pronged reliability test under Rule 702 requires that the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and that the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. Here, the pathologists’ testimony was based on photographs of the crime scene, SBI lab results, and discussions with detectives. They testified that it was routine in the field of forensic pathology to rely on such data and information from other sources and that they use photographs a couple hundred times each year to form medical opinions. They testified that it was less common for them to actually go to a crime scene. They explained how they compare the data and observations with what they have experienced at other crime scenes to form an opinion. Both testified that it was common in the field to form opinions based on comparisons with other cases and acknowledged that they deal with blood loss and render opinions as to cause of death on a daily basis. Testimony was given that it was a normal part of forensic pathology to determine if someone has died or needed medical attention as a result of blood loss. Both testified that they have been involved in hundreds of cases where they had to look at crime scene photographs of blood and a body to which they could compare the data and observations in this case. Based on their experience, they responded to the trial court’s inquiry that they were able to testify that the amount of blood in this case would be consistent with the person who would need immediate medical attention. The trial court properly determined that the pathologists’ testimony was based on sufficient facts or data, was the product of reliable principles and methods, and that they reliably applied those principles and methods to this case.

Applying the Daubert standard, the court held that the trial court improperly allowed a medical examiner to testify that the victim’s death was a homicide, when that opinion was based not on medical evidence but rather on non-medical information provided to the expert by law enforcement officers. However, the error did not rise to the level of plain error.

In this homicide case where the defendant was charged with murdering his wife, that the trial court did not err by allowing the State’s expert witness pathologists to testify that the victim’s cause of death was “homicide[.]” It concluded:

The pathologists in this case were tendered as experts in the field of forensic pathology. A review of their testimony makes clear that they used the words “homicide by unde[te]rmined means” and “homicidal violence” within the context of their functions as medical examiners, not as legal terms of art, to describe how the cause of death was homicidal (possibly by asphyxia by strangulation or repeated stabbing) instead of death by natural causes, disease, or accident. Their ultimate opinion was proper and supported by sufficient evidence, including injury to the victim’s fourth cervical vertebra, sharp force injury to the neck, stab wounds, and damage to certain “tissue and thyroid cartilage[.]” Accordingly, the trial court did not err by admitting the pathologists’ testimony.

In this rape and murder case in which the old “Howerton” version of Rule 702 applied, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that opinion testimony by the State’s medical examiner experts as to cause of death was unreliable and should not have been admitted. The court concluded:

[T]he forensic pathologists examined the body and eliminated other causes of death while drawing upon their experience, education, knowledge, skill, and training. Both doctors knew from the criminal investigation into her death that [the victim’s] home was broken into, that she had been badly bruised, that she had abrasions on her arm and vagina, that her panties were torn, and that DNA obtained from a vaginal swab containing sperm matched Defendant’s DNA samples. The doctors’ physical examination did not show a cause of death, but both doctors drew upon their experience performing such autopsies in stating that suffocation victims often do not show physical signs of asphyxiation. The doctors also eliminated all other causes of death before arriving at asphyxiation, which Defendant contends is not a scientifically established technique. However, the reliability criterion at issue here is nothing more than a preliminary inquiry into the adequacy of the expert’s testimony. Accordingly, the doctors’ testimony met the first prong of Howerton so that “any lingering questions or controversy concerning the quality of the expert’s conclusions go to the weight of the testimony rather than its admissibility.” (citations omitted)

The court then concluded that the witnesses were properly qualified as experts in forensic pathology. 

No plain error occurred when the trial court admitted expert medical testimony identifying the victim’s death as a homicide. Medical experts described the nature of the victim’s injuries and how those injuries had resulted in his death. Their testimony did not use the word "homicide" as a legal term of art but rather to explain that the victim’s death did not occur by accident. Neither witness provided evidence that amounted to a legal conclusion based on the facts; instead, they testified as to the factual mechanism that resulted in the victim’s death.

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