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Phillips v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

January 20, 2017

Richmond D. Phillips
v.
State of Maryland

          Argued: October 6, 2016

         Circuit 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.

          OPINION

          GETTY, J.

         This 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.[1] 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.

         For the 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 was erroneous.

         BACKGROUND

         The 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 death.

         The 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 swab[2]from 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."

         Prior 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[3] 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.

         The DNA 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 indicated.
(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 established by:
(i) The Technical Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (TWGDAM); or
(ii) The DNA Advisory Board of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
(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 this section.
(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 requirements].

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.)

         The 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.

         Mr. 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.[4]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.[5] We granted both the petition and the cross-petition on March 25, 2016. Phillips v. State, 446 Md. 704 (2016).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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. at 27).

         DISCUSSION

         Mr. 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 evidence.

         In 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.[6] 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.

         A. The Parties' Contentions and Lower Courts' Rulings

         Mr. 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 ...


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