By John F. Maclean
In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Maryland held that an expert witness could not testify that crime scene bullets and fragments were fired from the defendant’s gun.
The court held that the firearm expert, based upon their reports, studies, and testimony, could only testify that the patterns and markings on the bullets were consistent or inconsistent with those bullets fired from a specifically known firearm. In so doing, the court established that the new analysis for determining expert testimony can be applied to issues that were held to be generally accepted and reliable prior to the Rockhind v. Stevenson 2020 decision and limit expert witness testimony on those issues. Rochkind v. Stevenson, 471 Md. 1 (Md. 2020).
In State v. Abruquah, decided on June 20, 2023, the defendant was charged in 2012 with first degree murder and other charges after a neighbor testified he heard multiple gunshots from the defendant’s house and days later, the body of the defendant’s roommate was found decomposing in his bedroom, shot five times. The Defendant told police he owned two firearms, including a .38, and a jailhouse informant testified that the defendant said he had been in an argument with the victim, and snapped, and shot the victim with his .38 revolver.
A jury convicted the defendant of first degree murder in 2013, but the Appellate Court of Maryland reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial based on grounds not relevant to the current decision. In a new trial, a state expert, after a motion in limine by the defendant, was allowed to testify in their opinion that the bullet and fragments were fired from the defendant’s .38 revolver. The defendant was again convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. The Defendant filed an appeal on whether the testimony would have been allowed under the new 2020 analysis under Rochkind. On review by the Appellate Court of Maryland, the court held that the testimony was allowed under the new analysis. The Defendant’s conviction was sustained. The Supreme Court of Maryland granted the appeal to determine whether the state witness’s methodology was sufficient under Rochkind to determine if a specific firearm was the source of a bullet found at the crime scene.
In the court’s decision, written by Chief Justice Matthew Fader, the court held that Maryland Rule 5-702 dictates the admissibility of expert testimony, including analyzing whether the witness is qualified by skill, experience, training, or education, and whether a sufficient factual basis exists to support the expert conclusion. Prior to 2020, analysis included whether there was general acceptance of such evidence under the standard of general acceptance previously established. Frye v. U.S., 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), and Reed v. State, 283 Md. 374 (Md. 1978).
The court held that under the new Rochkind standard, factors also now include whether the theory or technique has been tested, has been subjected to peer review, and has a known or potential rate of error. Rochkind, at 35-36.
The court held that the methodology of the two most recent studies offered by the state expert witness had not been peer reviewed or published in a journal, there was no established reliable error rate for the casework from the studies, and there was no proper existing and maintenance of standards of testing the bullets and fragments in question. Despite there being previous widespread acceptance of the methodology of identification of bullets and fragments, in the present case, the court found that allowing the state’s witness to testify as such violated the abuse of discretion standard and that the error was not harmless.
Justices Michele Hotten and Steven Gould wrote dissenting opinions that the Rochkind analysis does not require mathematical certainty and that the evidence was sufficient to establish the basis for the state witness’ opinion.
The court’s majority analysis can and should be applied to other evidentiary issues previously viewed prior to 2020 as having general widespread acceptance, including fingerprints, DNA, and other scientific evidence, limiting the degree that an expert witness can give their opinion.
John F. Maclean is an assistant public defender with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.