In State v. Phillips, decided June 3, 2020, the SC Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction due to the prosecutor’s misuse of DNA evidence.
DNA evidence is powerful. When it is available and when it is used appropriately, it can be conclusive evidence of a person’s guilt, or it can be conclusive evidence of a person’s innocence. Even decades after a person has been convicted of a heinous crime, DNA evidence can conclusively exonerate a person.
DNA evidence, and the air of infallibility that surrounds it, can be just as powerful when it is misused, and a prosecutor’s misuse of DNA evidence can result in wrongful convictions…
What did the prosecutor do in Phillips’ trial, and how can you know when DNA evidence is being misused by the prosecution?
How do Prosecutors Misuse DNA Evidence?
DNA evidence is admissible in SC courts, but only when the evidence is sufficiently reliable to comply with the SC Supreme Court’s test announced in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999).
When is DNA evidence sufficiently reliable, and when should misuse of DNA evidence be excluded by trial courts?
DNA Evidence is Not Automatically Admissible
In State v. Council, the SC Supreme Court held that mitochondrial DNA analysis of public hair found at a crime scene was sufficiently reliable to be admitted as evidence in a murder and sexual assault prosecution.
However, the Supreme Court did not find that all DNA evidence is admissible in criminal prosecutions – they found that the scientific methodology used to analyze the mitochondrial DNA, in that case, was sufficiently reliable:
“When admitting scientific evidence under Rule 702,” we held, “the trial judge must find the evidence will assist the trier of fact, the expert witness is qualified, and the underlying science is reliable.” 335 S.C. at 20, 515 S.E.2d at 518. We also held that-“if the evidence is admissible under Rule 702”-the trial court must determine whether the probative value is substantially outweighed by the dangers listed in Rule 403. Id.
If the underlying science of the proposed DNA evidence is not reliable, the testimony is not admissible. Also, if the proposed testimony is more prejudicial than probative, confusing, or likely to mislead the jury, it is not admissible under Rule 403.
Misuse of DNA Evidence Confuses and Misleads Jurors
Unlike the more straightforward analysis of mitochondrial DNA in State v. Council, the DNA evidence presented in Phillips was confusing and misleading because it relied on “three fundamental concepts that are not at all straightforward: ‘touch DNA,’ ‘non-exclusion DNA,’ and ‘random match probability.'”
Touch DNA, or trace DNA, involves the analysis of a fragment of DNA which could “match” only a portion of any particular person’s DNA profile – meaning the DNA could belong to the defendant, or it could belong to an uncertain number of other people whose DNA profile contains the same DNA fragment.
Non-Exclusion DNAevidence involves testimony that, when a defendant’s DNA information is a part of a “DNA mixture,” the defendant cannot be excluded as a contributor.
In many cases, this is misleading because “cannot be excluded” is not the same as “included,” and non-exclusion DNA evidence should be “inadmissible without reliable accompanying evidence as to the likelihood that the test could or could not exclude other individuals in a given population.”
Random Match Probability “is the likelihood that another randomly chosen person-unrelated to the suspect-will have a DNA fragment identical to the fragment the analyst found in the touch sample. The probability of a random match in any given case depends on the size of the fragment the analyst can obtain from the touch sample.”
State supreme courts and the US Supreme Court have “addressed how random match probability creates risk that jurors will confuse it with a statistical probability of guilt, referring to the risk as the ‘prosecutor’s fallacy.'”
14th Circuit Solicitor Slammed for Misuse of DNA Evidence
What did the SC Supreme Court say about the 14th Circuit solicitor’s misuse of DNA evidence? In a rare rebuke of a prosecutor who was either 1) intentionally misleading the court and jury or 2) incompetently misleading the court and jury, the Court said that:
- “The State failed to explain to the trial court or the jury three fundamental concepts underlying the DNA testimony the analyst gave in this particular case.”
- “In several instances-the State presented information to the trial court and the jury that was simply wrong.”
- “[T]he State did basically nothing to give the trial court a sufficient factual and scientific basis upon which to carry out its gatekeeping responsibility,” calling no witnesses with knowledge of the factual or scientific basis for the proposed testimony at the hearing on the motion to exclude.
- “[T]he State made almost no effort to educate the trial court on the factual and scientific basis of Gallman’s opinions.”
- “In the pre-trial hearing in this case, the only person who spoke on behalf of the State was the assistant solicitor. She spoke only briefly, and to the extent she said anything about the concepts of touch DNA, non-exclusion DNA, or random match probability, the statements she made were mostly wrong.”
- “[T]he State elicited from Gallman only general descriptions of non-exclusion DNA and random match probability. Of the concerns recited by the courts and academic authorities discussed above, the State addressed none of them. We are particularly troubled by the State’s failure to elicit from Gallman any explanation of the method she used to calculate the probability that some other person-not Phillips-contributed the DNA on the gun or in the jeans pocket.”
- Addressing the assistant solicitor’s statements to the trial court that Phillips’ DNA was found on the weapon, the SC Supreme Court says: “The assistant solicitor’s statements are wrong. She appeared to recognize her error moments later when she stated, “Your Honor, I mis-spoke.” She then proceeded, however, to make another series of incorrect statements.”
- The SC Supreme Court goes on to highlight “incorrect statements” that were made by the State’s DNA expert in response to “confusing questions from the assistant solicitor.”
- The Court calls out the assistant solicitor’s “casual use of scientific terms” as “striking.”
- Referring to the assistant solicitor’s questions to the state’s DNA expert, the Court says “We do not fully understand the assistant solicitor’s questions, so Gallman probably did not understand them either. The answers, however, are wrong.”
- The SC Supreme Court points out that the trial court was not in a position to know whether the solicitor’s questions and answers were correct and appropriate, because the assistant solicitor did not provide a factual or scientific basis for the testimony. “The trial court was essentially left in the dark as to the difficult concepts of touch DNA, non-exclusion DNA, and random match probability. As to the misstatements made by the assistant solicitor and Gallman, the trial court was kept out of the position of even suspecting the statements might be incorrect.”
- “The root of the trial court’s error, however, is a series of failures by the State. First, the State failed to present the testimony of its expert witness at the hearing at which the trial court was to consider the admissibility of the expert’s opinion. Second, the State presented an incomplete factual and scientific basis for the admission of the expert’s opinion. Third, the State did not explain to the jury the complicated DNA concepts involved in this case. Fourth, the State presented incorrect information about its DNA evidence. Finally-as we will explain-the assistant solicitor misstated to the trial court and the jury that Phillips’ DNA was on the gun and in the jeans pocket.”
- “More importantly, however, the assistant solicitor made misstatements in her closing argument to the jury. On several occasions she repeated the false statement that if a person does not touch an item he will be excluded.”
The SC Supreme Court found that the errors were not harmless. Although there is a risk that “the jury might unknowingly or accidentally confuse the complicated concepts underlying DNA evidence,” in this case the prosecutor repeatedly made incorrect statements to the Court and the jury, all but guaranteeing that the jury would be confused and misled:
Such innocent confusion was certainly a risk in this case. We need not determine whether the risk of innocent confusion materialized in this case, however, because the incorrect statements in closing argument all but guaranteed the jury was confused and misled. If there were any possibility we might find the error of admitting the evidence harmless, the assistant solicitor extinguished that possibility with her incorrect statements in her closing argument.
Are Touch DNA, Non-Exclusion DNA, or Random Match Probability Admissible?
Was this murder conviction reversed solely because the prosecutor did not do her homework, did not understand DNA evidence, and misled the jury about the science involved? Would the evidence have been admissible if it was presented in a more honest or competent manner?
The SC Supreme Court says that “even when the concepts of touch DNA, non-exclusion DNA, and random match probability are completely and accurately presented to a jury, there is significant potential the testimony will be confusing and misleading.”
If there is a “significant potential the testimony will be confusing and misleading,” the evidence is not admissible under Rule 403.
DNA evidence is invaluable for solving crimes and for exonerating the wrongfully convicted, but it can also be “junk science” that is used by prosecutors to secure convictions when their evidence is shaky – resulting in more wrongful convictions.
If you are facing criminal charges where there may be DNA evidence, you cannot rely on the prosecution to fairly and impartially present DNA evidence to jurors in your case – you need a criminal defense lawyer who understands DNA evidence and who has access to DNA labs and experts who can debunk the junk science by explaining it to jurors or by keeping it out of court entirely.