State v. Holmes, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 708 (Dec. 18, 2018)

In this first-degree murder case, where the victim was found in a bathtub with a hair dryer and cause of death was an issue, the trial court did not err by admitting expert opinions.

         The defendant asserted that expert Michael Kale was not qualified to offer expert testimony that a running hairdryer dropped in a tub of water would not create current leakage if there is no path to the ground for the electrical current. Kale testified that he is an inspection supervisor for Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement specializing in electrical code enforcement, a position he has held for 15 years. In 2001 he received a Level III inspection certification, the highest level certification for electrical inspectors. He continues to take 60 hours in continuing education classes each year. Prior to his current position, he was an electrical contractor since 1987. In the early 1980s, he began constructing electrical wiring systems and continued to do so until his current position where he switched from constructing to inspecting such systems. His current responsibilities include checking the installation of electrical systems and power distribution systems by testing and visually inspecting electrical wiring to ensure code compliance. Given his knowledge, experience, and training regarding electrical systems, which encompasses how electricity moves, it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to determine that Kale had the necessary qualifications to provide his opinion. While Kale lacked a post-secondary degree in electrical engineering, the courts have never required such a formal credential. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that Kale’s opinion was not based on reliable methods, finding that the defendant’s argument mischaracterized Kale’s testimony.

         The trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting testimony from expert Michael McFarlane, an FBI forensic examiner, tendered as an expert in electrical systems and forensic electricity. McFarlane testified that appliances such as a hairdryer have an ALCI safety plug, which disables the electrical current going to the device when a certain amount of current leakage occurs. To test whether the ALCI on the hairdryer found with the victim was working and to determine the exact amount of leakage at which the ALCI would disable the current, McFarlane conducted an experiment. He set up “a trough with water in it” and attached wires to the hairdryer that he then placed in the water. At the other end of the trough, he placed additional wires to provide a secondary pathway for the current to leak to the ground. McFarlane then moved the hairdryer closer to the other wires to determine the exact amount of leakage from the hair dryer circuit to the secondary pathway that occurred before the ALCI plug disabled the current going to the hair dryer. McFarlane conducted the experiment to test the amount of current that would need to be leaked in order for the ALCI safety plug to disable the current going to the device. He used the same hairdryer that was found with the victim and set up a trough to re-create a bathtub. He testified that when he turned on the hairdryer, it functioned correctly with the attached wires. His failure to say what the trough was made of or whether it had a metal drain did not render the experiment void of substantial similarity as suggested by the defendant. He testified that the presence of a metal drain is relevant in determining whether the drain is connected to something that would provide an alternative pathway for the current to reach the ground. However, this experiment was testing the amount of leakage that causes the ALCI safety plug to disable the current and did not concern the medium through which the current travels once it is already leaked. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting this evidence. Even if this test was an experiment, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence in this context, noting that candid acknowledgment of dissimilarities and limitations of an experiment--as occurred here--is generally sufficient to prevent experimental evidence from being prejudicial. The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that McFarlane’s testimony was not based on reliable methods.