Richmond D. Phillips
State of Maryland
Argued: October 6, 2016
Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT 11-1027X
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Getty,
Battaglia, Lynne A. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.
appeal requires us to determine whether a deoxyribonucleic
acid ("DNA") analysis conducted in accordance with
the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ("FBI")
Quality Assurance Standards ("QAS") qualifies for
automatic admissibility under § 10-915 of the Courts and
Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP") of the
Maryland Code. Petitioner Richmond Phillips argues that the
DNA evidence is not admissible because the analysis was not
performed in accordance with standards established by one of
the two entities named in CJP § 10-915 ("DNA
Admissibility Statute"), and because the methods of
analysis that were used are not generally accepted as
reliable in the relevant scientific community under
Frye-Reed. The trial court and the Court of
Special Appeals agreed with Mr. Phillips that the DNA
evidence did not qualify for automatic admissibility under
§ 10-915, but held that the evidence was nonetheless
admissible under Frye-Reed. Mr. Phillips
now challenges the latter conclusion, while the State
challenges the former.
reasons that follow, we hold that the DNA evidence was
automatically admissible under CJP § 10-915.
Accordingly, the trial court should not have conducted a
Frye-Reed hearing to determine its
admissibility, and we will not address Mr. Phillips'
contention that the trial court's ruling at that hearing
State charged Mr. Phillips with the first-degree murders of
his ex-girlfriend, Wynetta Wright, and their eleven-month-old
daughter, Jaylin Wright, which took place on May 31, 2011.
Wynetta died of a gunshot wound to the head. Her body was
found in a park near the Hillcrest Heights Community Center
in Prince George's County. Jaylin died of hyperthermia as
a result of being left in a hot vehicle for an extended
period of time. Her body was found in Wynetta's car in a
parking lot near the park. Mr. Phillips admitted to meeting
with Wynetta in the park in the early morning hours of May
31, but denied any involvement in her death or Jaylin's
police obtained DNA samples from the crime scenes, the
victims, and Mr. Phillips, which were tested in June 2011 by
forensic chemist Jessica Charak of the Prince George's
County Police Department Crime Laboratory ("Prince
George's County Laboratory" or
"Laboratory"). Two samples are relevant to this
appeal: a buccal swabfrom Mr. Phillips, and a sample obtained
from the steering wheel of Wynetta's car. Based on Ms.
Charak's analysis, she concluded that the steering wheel
sample was consistent with Mr. Phillips' DNA profile and,
therefore, he could not be excluded as a contributor to the
sample. Ms. Charak found that the steering wheel sample also
contained genetic material from Wynetta, Jaylin, and at least
two additional unknown contributors. Ms. Charak calculated
that "[t]he chances of selecting an unrelated individual
from the random population who would be included as a
possible contributor to the mixed DNA profile obtained from
the evidence sample . . . are approximately . . . 1 in 2.93
million individuals in the African American population."
to trial, Mr. Phillips filed a motion in limine to
exclude the State's DNA evidence and related expert
testimony. Mr. Phillips argued that the Prince George's
County Laboratory's methods of analyzing complex,
low-template DNA samples were not generally accepted as
reliable in the relevant scientific community, and thus the
evidence was inadmissible under Frye-Reed.
The State responded that the DNA evidence and related expert
testimony were automatically admissible under CJP §
10-915, and thus a Frye-Reed hearing was
not necessary to determine admissibility.
Admissibility Statute in effect throughout Mr. Phillips'
proceedings provided that DNA evidence "is admissible to
prove or disprove the identity of any person, " so long
as certain conditions are fulfilled:
(a) Definitions. -
(1)In this section the following words have the meanings
(2) "Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)" means the
molecules in all cellular forms that contain genetic
information in a chemical structure of each individual.
(3) "DNA profile" means an analysis of genetic loci
that have [sic] been validated according to standards
(i) The Technical Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods
(ii) The DNA Advisory Board of the Federal Bureau of
(b)In general. - A statement from the testing
laboratory setting forth that the analysis of genetic loci
has been validated by standards established by TWGDAM or the
DNA Advisory Board is sufficient to admit a DNA profile under
(c)Purposes. - In any criminal proceeding, the
evidence of a DNA profile is admissible to prove or disprove
the identity of any person, if the party seeking to introduce
the evidence of a DNA profile [complies with specified notice
CJP § 10-915 (1998) (emphasis added) (amended 2016). Ms.
Charak's report contained the following statement of
validation: "The DNA profiles reported below were
determined by procedures which have been validated according
to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Quality
Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing
Laboratories." (Emphasis added.)
trial court conducted two hearings to determine the
admissibility of the DNA evidence. First, the trial court
held a hearing to determine whether the Prince George's
County Laboratory was in compliance with the DNA
Admissibility Statute, which would render the evidence
automatically admissible without the need for a
Frye-Reed hearing. At this initial hearing,
the trial court determined that the Laboratory was not in
compliance with the Statute, and therefore the DNA evidence
was not automatically admissible. Next, the trial court
conducted a Frye-Reed hearing to determine
whether the Laboratory's methods of analysis were
generally accepted as reliable within the relevant scientific
community. The trial court concluded that the
Laboratory's methods satisfied this standard, and
therefore the DNA evidence would be admissible at trial.
Phillips was tried before a jury beginning on January 14,
2013. The trial court admitted into evidence the analysis of
the buccal swab and steering wheel sample, and Ms. Charak
testified regarding her conclusions. On January 17, 2013, the
jury convicted Mr. Phillips of the first-degree murders of
Wynetta and Jaylin, and related charges. On March 22, 2013,
the trial court sentenced Mr. Phillips to two consecutive
terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Mr. Phillips appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals
affirmed the convictions. Phillips v. State, 226
Md.App. 1, 4 (2015). Mr. Phillips then petitioned this Court
for a writ of certiorari, requesting review of whether the
lower courts erred in holding that the DNA evidence was
admissible under Frye-Reed.The State filed a
conditional cross-petition, requesting review of whether the
lower courts erred in holding that the DNA evidence did not
qualify for automatic admissibility under CJP §
10-915. We granted both the petition and the
cross-petition on March 25, 2016. Phillips v. State,
446 Md. 704 (2016).
trial court's determination that the Prince George's
County Laboratory was not in compliance with the DNA
Admissibility Statute, to the extent that this is a factual
finding, will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.
See Bottini v. Dep't of Fin., 450 Md. 177, 187
(2016) ("We give due regard to the trial court's
role as fact-finder and will not set aside factual findings
unless they are clearly erroneous." (quoting
Breeding v. Koste, 443 Md. 15, 27 (2015))). However,
"[w]hen the trial court's decision involves an
interpretation and application of Maryland statutory and case
law, our Court must determine whether the [trial] court's
conclusions are legally correct." Id. (second
alteration in original) (quoting Breeding, 443 Md.
Phillips argues that the trial court erred in admitting the
DNA evidence at trial because the State did not establish at
the Frye-Reed hearing that the methods used
by the Prince George's County Laboratory in conducting
its analysis are generally accepted as reliable within the
relevant scientific community. Before we can address that
argument, however, we must determine the threshold issue of
whether Mr. Phillips was even entitled to a
Frye-Reed hearing regarding the DNA
Maryland, scientific evidence can become admissible either by
statute, "if a relevant statute exists, " or by
establishing general acceptance in the relevant scientific
community under Frye-Reed. Armstead v.
State, 342 Md. 38, 54 (1996). Here, a relevant statute
exists-the DNA Admissibility Statute, CJP § 10-915. The
DNA Admissibility Statute provides that DNA evidence is
admissible so long as certain notice requirements are met and
the analysis is accompanied by "[a] statement from the
testing laboratory setting forth that the analysis of genetic
loci has been validated by standards established by TWGDAM or
the DNA Advisory Board." CJP § 10-915 (1998)
(amended 2016). "When the General Assembly has enacted
legislation rendering evidence admissible, 'the only way
to contest the validity of the underlying principles involved
would be to argue that the statutes violate one's right
to due process of law.'" Armstead, 342 Md.
at 57 (quoting L. McLain, Maryland Evidence §
401.4(c), at 278 (1987 & 1999 Cum. Supp.)). Mr.
Phillips has not argued before this Court that the DNA
Admissibility Statute violates his right to due
process. Thus, if the DNA evidence offered by the
State at Mr. Phillips' trial satisfied the requirements
of § 10-915, then Mr. Phillips was not entitled to a
Frye-Reed hearing to determine its
admissibility. Therefore, we must first determine whether the
DNA evidence introduced against Mr. Phillips qualified for
automatic admissibility under CJP § 10-915.
The Parties' Contentions and Lower Courts'
Phillips argues that the DNA evidence was not automatically
admissible under CJP § 10-915 because Ms. Charak's
report was not accompanied by a statement that the analysis
had "been validated by standards established by TWGDAM
or the DNA Advisory Board, " as required by the Statute.
Instead, the report was accompanied by a statement that the
Prince George's County Laboratory's procedures had
"been validated according to the Federal Bureau of
Investigation's Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic
DNA Testing ...