Maryland’s highest court limits use of ballistics Evidence in trials.

The state’s highest court found in a judgement that would limit the use of such testimony in the state’s courts that a weapons expert who testified at a Maryland murder trial should not have been allowed to deliver an unqualified opinion that bullets collected at a crime scene came from the suspect’s gun. The Maryland Supreme Court ruled 4-3 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 admitted was his.

The ruling’s author, Chief Judge Matthew Fader, stated that the majority believes that guns identification is generally reliable. He said that a jury can use it to determine if 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 mentioned that experts who are asked the right questions or have access to more 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 specific unknown bullet to a specific known firearm,” Fader stated. Maneka Sinha, a law professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, said it was historic for a state’s top court to examine the scientific foundations of such evidence and conclude that the type of testimony that courts have relied on for years is untrustworthy.

Sinha was a member of a team of public defenders in the District of Columbia who battled a trial-level case in which a judge similarly prohibited guns testimony. “While challenges to this type of evidence have become more common,” Sinha added, “very few high courts have taken up the issue.” Sinha pointed out that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has limited how firearms examiners can testify. The verdict remands Abruquah’s case to the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County for a new trial.

Abruquah argued in his appeal that the court abused its discretion by permitting the firearms examiner’s testimony. The state contended that the examiner’s report was lawfully allowed. According to the judgement, guns identification has been a field for more than a century, and for the most part of that time, it has been accepted by law enforcement and courts without substantial dispute. However, subsequent investigations have called into doubt the foundations behind guns identification, leading to increased distrust.

For example, the court cited findings from two groups of experts outside of the weapons and toolmark identification professions that have been skeptical of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners Theory, which is the dominant technique utilized by firearms examiners, since 2008. While the lower court determined that the state met its burden of demonstrating that the guns and toolmark identification methods had been peer reviewed and published, the majority of the state’s Supreme Court justices considered 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,” according to the judgement. “However, we would be remiss if we relied solely on a community that, by definition, is reliant on the continued viability of a methodology to sustain itself, while ignoring the relevant and persuasive input of a different, well-qualified, and disinterested segment of professionals.”

The opinion made several references to the court’s Rochkind v. Stevenson decision from 2020, which modified admissibility rules for expert testimony. One of three dissenting judges, Justice Michele Hotten, concluded that the circuit court followed Rochkind “within the letter of the law as prescribed.” She stated that it was “within the realm of the jury as 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 expert opinion that is presented for consideration of its admissibility by the judge,” Hotten said in her conclusion, which Justice Angela Eaves joined. “That is not what Rochkind required.”

 

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