Maryland’s highest court limits use of ballistics evidence at trials
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A firearms expert who testified at a Maryland murder trial shouldn’t have been allowed to offer an unqualified opinion that bullets recovered from a crime scene came from the suspect’s gun, the state’s highest court concluded in a ruling that will limit the use such testimony in the state’s courts.
The Supreme Court of Maryland ruled in a 4-3 decision this week in an appeal by Kobina Ebo Abruquah, who was convicted of murder in 2013 after the court allowed a firearms examiner to testify without qualification that bullets at a crime scene were fired from a gun that Abruquah had acknowledged was his.
Chief Judge Matthew Fader, who wrote the ruling, noted that the majority doesn’t question that firearms identification is generally reliable. He wrote that it can be helpful to a jury in identifying whether patterns and markings on “unknown” bullets or cartridges “are consistent or inconsistent with those on bullets or cartridges known to have been fired from a particular firearm.”
Fader also noted that it’s possible that experts who are asked the right questions or have the benefit of additional studies and data may be able to offer opinions “that drill down further on the level of consistency exhibited by samples or the likelihood that two bullets or cartridges fired from different firearms might exhibit such consistency.”
“However, based on the record here, and particularly the lack of evidence that study results are reflective of actual casework, firearms identification has not been shown to reach reliable results linking a particular unknown bullet to a particular known firearm,” Fader wrote.
Maneka Sinha, a law professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, said it was groundbreaking for a state’s highest court to take a critical look at the scientific foundations of such evidence and find that the type of testimony that courts have been relying on for years is unreliable.
Sinha was on a team of public defenders in the District of Columbia that litigated a trial-level case in which a judge restricted firearms testimony in a similar way.
“While challenges to this type of evidence have been made increasingly, very few high courts have taken up the issue,” Sinha said.
Sinha noted that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has restricted how firearms examiners are allowed to present testimony.
The ruling remands Abruquah’s case back to Prince George’s County Circuit Court for a new trial.
In his appeal, Abruquah contended that the court abused its discretion in allowing the firearms examiner’s testimony. The state argued that the examiner’s opinion was properly admitted.
The ruling pointed out that firearms identification has existed as a field for more than a century, and for most of that time it has been accepted by law enforcement and courts without significant challenge. But recent reports have questioned the foundations underlying firearms identification, leading to greater skepticism.
For example, the court noted that reports issued since 2008 by two groups of experts outside of the firearms and toolmark identification fields that have been critical of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners Theory, which is the leading methodology used by firearms examiners.
While the lower court concluded that the state satisfied its burden to show that the firearms and toolmark identification methodology has been peer reviewed and published, the majority of justices on the state’s Supreme Court found the evidence to be “more mixed.”
“The widespread acceptance of the methodology among those who have vast experience with it, study it, and devote their careers to it is of great significance,” the ruling said. “However, we would be remiss were we to rely exclusively on a community that, by definition, is dependent for its livelihood on the continued viability of a methodology to sustain it, while ignoring the relevant and persuasive input of a different, well-qualified, and disinterested segment of professionals.”
The ruling included frequent mentions of the court’s 2020 decision Rochkind v. Stevenson, which updated admissibility standards for expert testimony.
Justice Michele Hotten, one of three dissenting justices, found that the circuit court followed Rochkind “within the letter of the law as prescribed.” She wrote that it was “within the realm of the jury as the triers of fact, to resolve the firearm toolmark analysis and opinion, along with the other evidence presented, in rendering its verdict.”
“The majority appears to conflate the role of the trial judge as gatekeepers, with the evaluation of the science or the expert opinion that is presented for consideration of its admissibility by the judge,” Hotten wrote in her opinion, which was joined by Justice Angela Eaves. “That is not what Rochkind required.”