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Court clarifies DNA review

The Supreme Court, ruling Monday on a granted case that never came up for oral argument, decided summarily that flaws in presenting DNA evidence during a criminal trial do not necessarily undermine the value of a conviction based in part on that evidence.  After having the Nevada rape case of Troy Brown under review for nearly a full year, the Court decided it in an unsigned opinion and rejected two constitutional challenges to the conviction.  It sent back to lower courts a third challenge.  The decision was based mainly on a legal ground that neither side in the case believed remained in issue — the sufficiency of the DNA evidence, under Jackson v. Virginia (1979).

The case is McDaniel v. Brown (08-559).  It had been granted review last Jan. 26, and had been set for oral argument on Oct. 13, but that was canceled in September.  Briefing was completed, and the Court had agreed to allow the federal government to join in the argument. After that, nothing had occurred in the case until the final decision emerged Monday.

Brown was convicted of the brutal rape 16 years ago of a nine-year-old girl who lived near him in a trailer park in Carlin, Nev.  In accepting his case for review, the Justices had planned to clarify how evidence-insuficiency claims were to be judged under the Jackson precedent when raised by state prisoners in federal habeas cases, and whether such a claim could be considered if it was based on evidence not considered at the trial.  By the time briefing was completed in the case, the Jackson issue appeared to have dropped out of the case.  However, on Monday, after studying the briefs, the Court went ahead with a ruling on that issue.  “We think prudential concerns favor our review” of that question, especially since Brown was still seeking to void his conviction and the state was still seeking to have it upheld.

The Court then went on to overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling that the DNA evidence pointing to Brown as the rapist was not sufficient to convict him.  The Circuit Court relied upon an expert’s analysis of the DNA evidence — an analysis made 11 years after the trial, questioning the testimony of an DNA expert who had testified at the trial.  The report suggested that the trial testimony of that expert was flawed because it confused the probabilities that the DNA evidence pointed to Brown as the perpetrator.  The later-prepared report suggested that the DNA evidence might, instead, point to one of Brown’s brothers as the offender.

Even if it were proper to consider the later DNA assessment, the Court ruled, the Ninth Circuit committed an “egregious error” in finding that the Nevada Supreme Court had been wrong in rejecting Brown’s evidence challenge.  The report provided no basis, the Court said, for excluding all of the DNA evidence at trial that pointed to Brown.  Even though the trial expert overstated the value of the DNA evidence as it pointed to Brown, the Court added, it remained “powerful evidence” of Brown’s guilt.  All that was involved, the opinion suggested, was that two experts did not agree with each other.

The Court went on to separately reject another claim by Brown: that his due process rights were violated in the way the DNA evidence was presented at his trial.  The Justices concluded that Brown had forfeited that claim.

Summing up on the DNA issue, the Court said that such evidence can be persuasive “in the eyes of the jury,” and thus “it is important that it be presented in a fair and reliable manner.”  In this case, despite the fallacy in the probability testimony of the trial expert, there was “ample DNA and non-DNA evidence in record adduced at trial” to support the jury’s finding of guilt, it concluded.

It returned the case to the Ninth Circuit to consider Brown’s remaining claim: that his defense lawyer performed inadequately at the trial.

The decision was unanimous, but Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, did not support the Court’s reasoning about the role that the post-trial report on DNA analysis had played in the case.  That report was not part of the trial record, and thus should not have been considered at all, Thomas wrote.