The D.C. Court of Appeals gave the slapdown to D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin this month: The court reversed three firearm convictions because she gave improper instructions to a jury about the lack of fingerprint evidence. Retchin’s jury instructions constituted plain error and “affected the fundamental fairness and integrity of the jury trial,” the unanimous opinion stated.
The case began in 1997, when D.C. police officers found a loaded semi-automatic handgun in plain view on the front seat of a truck driven to a car wash by Anthony Wheeler. But no fingerprints were recovered from the gun, and the evidence in the case “was not overwhelming,” the ruling noted. Maybe the D.C. cops should have called that crew from "CSI." They solve everything.
At trial, Retchin instructed the jury that “the government is under no duty to conduct fingerprint tests,” and “the absence of any fingerprint evidence, standing alone, does not constitute reasonable doubt as to the firearm charges here.” The appeals court found Retchin shouldn’t have given the first instruction, while the second instruction was even more problematic and “impermissibly invaded the jury’s exclusive province to weigh the evidence as a whole against the standard of reasonable doubt.”