State v. Borders, 236 N.C. App. 149 (Sept. 2, 2014)

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.