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Murder Conviction Reversed for Improper Expert Testimony – California Court of Appeals 2020

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jan 21, 2021

California Court of Appeals Grants New Trial for Defendant Based on Improper Prosecution Firearms Expert Testimony

In the recent case of People v. Brad Azcona, appellate case number H045676, the California Court of Appeals, Sixth Appellate District, reversed several convictions of a Monterey man convicted, in part, based on what the court found to be improper prosecution firearms expert testimony. 

People v. Brad Azcona, appellate case number H045676
California Court of Appeals reversed numerous convictions partly based on improper testimony from a firearms expert.

The Azcona decision is expected to have a significant impact in the litigation of firearms-related cases in California state courts.

Facts of the case 

Over a one-month period in 2015, Azcona committed a series of shootings and a robbery in the Salinas, California area. 

Following a jury trial, Azcona was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and a consecutive term of 156 years and four months for:

Prior to trial, Azcona moved in limine to limit firearm “toolmark” testimony. 

Using the toolmark method, the prosecution's expert was expected to testify that it was virtually certain that the bullet casings found at two of the crime scenes were fired from the same weapon. 

Azcona argued that the toolmark method – essentially a visual comparison of the marks on the shell casings – was not generally accepted in the scientific community, as required under the Kelly standard. 

The court denied Azcona's motion following an evidentiary hearing. The prosecution's firearms expert testified at trial to his opinion that the shell casings came from the same gun.

Difference in Standards for State vs Federal Expert Opinions

On appeal, the court first noted the difference in the standards for admission of expert scientific opinion between California state and federal courts. 

Under Kelly, California courts inquire as to whether a given scientific method is generally accepted in the relevant expert community. 

Daubert standard in federal court 

In federal court, by contrast, the judge has a more extensive gatekeeping role under the Daubert standard, essentially passing their own judgment on whether the relevant technique or method is reliable.

Difference in Standards for State vs Federal Expert Opinions
The appeals court noted there was a difference in standards for admitting expert opinions in state and federal courts.

Azcona raised a novel challenge, however. He conceded that toolmark analysis had been previously accepted in the scientific community. 

Recent changes in the scientific literature, Azcona argued, had undermined the previously accepted reliability of the technique. 

Azcona reasoned that while toolmark expert opinions may have been previously admissible, they are no longer admissible.

Claim that toolmark analysis was not valid science

Faced with this challenge, the court first expressed doubt that toolmark analysis is even subject to a scientific expertise analysis as visually comparing marks is not so alien to a layperson as to require scientific expertise to explain to a jury. 

Nevertheless, the court rejected Azcona's contention that a consensus of the scientific community had subsequently rejected toolmark analysis as valid science. 

While Azcona had presented evidence in his briefs – and indeed to the jury – that toolmark analysis had been criticized by some in the relevant scientific community, the court ultimately concluded that those criticisms went to the weight of the toolmark evidence and not to its admissibility.

Error in the Manner of Expert Presentation at Trail 

While the court disagreed with Azcona that the toolmark evidence should have been excluded outright, it nevertheless:

  • found error with the trial court;
  • based on the manner of the expert presentation which was allowed at trial.

The court noted that trial courts have a “critical gatekeeping function” in preventing the admission of hearsay and expert opinions unsupported by the scientific materials on which the expert purportedly relies. 

Exclusion of unfounded expert opinions is particularly important in cases like Azcona, the court found, where the scientific literature has been subject to significant criticism.

Faults found by appeals court   

In particular, the court faulted the trial court for:

  • allowing the firearms expert to testify that the matching marks on the projectiles were “much more than can ever happen by random chance,” and
  • that the firearms were matched “to the practical exclusion of all other guns.”

In short, while the firearms expert was properly allowed to testify to toolmark evidence, his conclusions were presented with much more certainty than was justified by the underlying scientific literature.

Reversal of Convictions by Appeals Court

As a second and distinct ground upon which to reverse the convictions, the Court of Appeals cited that admission of testimony from the firearms expert that his conclusions had been approved by his supervisors. 

Reversal of Convictions by California Appeals Court
The Court of Appeals determined that presentation of supervisor approval gave an improper impression to the jury.

Azcona contended that this testimony violated his right to confrontation and constituted hearsay. 

At trial, the firearms expert bolstered the credibility of his opinions by describing at length the review and approval process within his department. 

In effect, he was permitted to present his conclusions as not only his own scientific opinion, but that of multiple other examiners with similar expertise.

Presentation by supervisor gave improper impression to jury 

The Court of Appeals concluded that this:

  • presentation of supervisor approval gave the impression to the jury;
  • expert's opinion was entitled to more weight than it would otherwise deserve.

While the court acknowledged that this error will often be harmless in other cases, when combined with the unsupported nature of the conclusions themselves, as discussed above, the court

could not find that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Unrelated prosecutorial misconduct 

Azcona also raised an unrelated prosecutorial misconduct claim and a request for resentencing based on a change in the law expanding the trial court's discretion in sentencing. 

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded as to the:

  • counts which depended on the firearms expert's testimony, and
  • left the remaining counts undisturbed.

In a concurring opinion, Presiding Judge Greenwood agreed with the majority's disposition, but would have gone further; holding that the trial court erred in admitting the toolmark evidence in the first instance because the changes in the scientific literature had sufficiently undermined the method as to require its inadmissibility.

Criminal Appeals for California Convictions

If you were arrested and convicted on a crime in California and believe the trail court made an error, you may have valid grounds for a criminal appeal.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers specialize in appealing a criminal conviction, Writs of Habeas Corpus, and motions for a new trial.

Criminal Appeals for California Convictions
Contact Eisner Gorin LLP to review the details of your case.

Our law firm has a reputation for providing a hard-hitting defense and overturning and reversing criminal convictions from Southern California courtrooms.

We have argued in front of the California Courts of Appeal and Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Our firm partners are California Bar Certified Criminal Law Specialists that understand well how the appeals process works and the relevant technical procedural issues.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm serving clients in Southern California, including Los Angeles County, Orange County, Ventura County, Riverside, and San Bernardino.

We are located at 1999 Avenue of the Stars, 11th Fl., Los Angeles, CA 90067.

Our main office is in the San Fernando Valley area of LA County next to the Van Nuys Superior Court at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401. Contact us for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776.          

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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