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.
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:
- two counts of premeditated murder,
- two counts of attempted murder,
- three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and
- one count of attempted robbery.
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.
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.
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.
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