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SJC Rules that Commonwealth’s Non-disclosure of Exculpatory Evidence was Error, but Affirms Denial of New Trial

info-sign-question-mark-1445039-300x265In Commonwealth v. Hernandez, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion for a new trial on his indictment for first degree murder.  In its ruling, the SJC ruled that the Commonwealth’s nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence prior to trial was error, but that it was not prejudicial.

The background was as follows. The defendant and the victim got into an argument outside the defendant’s residence. The victim eventually walked … to his motor vehicle, which was parked in front of the defendant’s home, and started the engine. The defendant walked up to the passenger side of the motor vehicle, where the argument continued. The defendant then pulled [a] handgun from his pocket and fired into the vehicle, striking the victim in the chest. The defendant testified that he shot the victim in self-defense when he saw the victim reach for something shiny [in his vehicle] that the defendant believed was a gun. The prosecution presented evidence that the only items found in the motor vehicle in which the victim sat were a steering wheel locking device, a baseball hat, a cigarette lighter, a cellular telephone, and a twenty dollar bill, and argued that none of these items could have been mistaken for a firearm. At trial, the state crime laboratory chemist who had supervised the search of the crime scene (Koester) testified that at the scene he inspected the outside of the vehicle and searched the surrounding area. Unbeknownst to the defense, just twelve days prior to the commencement of the trial, Koester was informed that … he [had] received an unsatisfactory result … on his 2011 crime scene proficiency test regarding the method for measuring blood spatter. Moreover, just six days prior to trial, a member of the crime lab quality assurance management section was informed that Koester [had] received unsatisfactory results on an earlier (2010) crime scene proficiency test, also as a result of improperly measured blood spatter evidence. This information [regarding Koester’s two test failures] was not disclosed to the defense prior to trial. The defense became aware of Koester’s work-related performance issues after the defendant’s conviction. The defendant then filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied after a non-evidentiary hearing. On appeal, the defendant argue[d] that the motion was improperly denied because the information on Koester’s performance deficiencies raise[d] doubts as to the accuracy and reliability of the evidence collection in [this] case.

In its decision, the SJC conclude[d] that although [the] information regarding Koester’s failed proficiency tests should have been disclosed [prior to trial] as exculpatory evidence‖ that could have been used to impeach Koester, the motion judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial. In the Court’s view, the Commonwealth’s failure to disclose the evidence was not prejudicial. The Court stated, “[T]he defendant claimed that the Commonwealth used Koester to bolster generally the credibility of the investigation and that the Koester deficiency evidence could have been used to raise doubts as to the thoroughness of the search of the [victim’s] vehicle. This argument fails. First, although Koester was involved in the investigation, he neither searched the [victim’s] motor vehicle at the scene nor participated in the more thorough search that took place at the tow yard. In fact, his participation in the investigation at the crime scene yielded nothing of evidentiary value. Further, although Koester was present at the crime scene in a supervisory role, he supervised other crime scene analysts, not the police sergeant who searched the vehicle.”

If you or a loved one is charged in case that includes forensic evidence and investigation conducted by a forensic examiner, it is of the utmost importance that you obtain any and all information that could be used to challenge any adverse conclusions made by the examiner.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a skilled attorney who has extensive experience with forensic evidence and leaves no stone unturned in the defense of his clients.  Call him for a free consultation today.