The D.C. Court of Appeals today threw out the first-degree murder conviction of Eric Gardner because the trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.
Gardner’s lawyer did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the DNA and blood technicians who made the initial examination of forensic evidence, and the trial judge improperly admitted other forensic expert evidence and testimony
The case stems from the 2004 murder of Andrew Kamara, a Washington taxi driver who was shot and killed while on the job. Gardner, whose clothing roughly matched a witness’s description, was arrested shortly after the shooting at a nearby Motel 6. A police officer saw Gardner climb out of a motel room window.
The key piece of evidence used to tie Gardner to the murder was a small blood smear on his jacket. Blood serum and DNA testing on the smear concluded that Kamara could not be excluded as “a possible predominant contributor.”
At trial, prosecutors admitted the DNA test report into evidence and presented the expert testimony of Dr. Robin Cotton, a representative of private forensic laboratory Orchid Cellmark, and Dr. Caroline Zervos, an FBI serology analyst. But the government did not present the testimony of any of the scientists or analysts who actually conducted the serology testing at the FBI or the DNA testing at Orchid Cellmark.
A jury convicted Gardner of first-degree felony murder while armed, second-degree murder while armed, attempted robbery while armed and several lesser offenses. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison and eight years of supervised release. He appealed.
Before the D.C. Court of Appeals in February, D.C. public defender Sloan Johnston argued that Cotton’s and Zervos’ testimony amounted to improper hearsay evidence because the prosecutors failed to bring in the technicians who initially examined the forensic evidence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Mannarino countered that the majority of the testimony given by Cotton and Zervos was admissible as “independent analyses.” Mannarino argued that the appeals court’s 1991 decision in In re Melton allows for experts to use hearsay evidence in forming their opinions.
The court found the defense’s characterization more persuasive. In a 12-page opinion, written by Judge Noel Anketell Kramer and joined by Judge Kathryn Oberly and Senior Judge William Pryor, the court highlighted a distinction in Melton that allows for hearsay evidence only for the ”limited purpose of ‘evaluating reasonableness and correctness of [the expert’s] conclusions, and not to establish the truth of matters asserted.’”
The appeals court found that D.C. Superior Court Judge James Boasberg erred at trial by failing to instruct the jury of that distinction. “In fact, the trial judge in this case instructed the jury that, when considering ‘the exhibits that were admitted into evidence,’ they were ‘permitted to draw from the facts you find have been proven such reasonable inferences as you feel justified,’” the appeals court wrote in a footnote.
Consequently, the court found that the forensic evidence was improperly admitted. Because the prosecution’s case relied on the forensic evidence as a “cornerstone” of its case, and because the rest of the circumstantial evidence was “unconvincing,” the court found that the errors were not harmless. The court reversed Gardner’s convictions on all charges.
Last month, President Barack Obama nominated Boasberg to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.