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DNA test used by FBI admissible in Md., high court says

Saying if the test is good enough for the FBI, it’s good enough for Maryland, the state’s top court has unanimously ruled in upholding a double first-degree murder conviction based in part on a federally approved DNA test the defense had alleged to be unreliable.

Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty, the newest member of the Court of Appeals, during his investiture in June in Annapolis. Getty has been a lobbyist and legislative policy advisors for the last two Republican governors and a state legislator but says he has no jitters starting his new role. ‘I think my background has prepared me for the types of things that will come before the court,’ he says. ‘I feel very confident.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty (File photo)

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals said a trial judge validly admitted into evidence Richmond D. Phillips’ DNA from the steering wheel of his murder victim Wynetta Wright’s car, in which their 11-month old child was also found dead in 2011.

Phillips’ defense counsel, in challenging the convictions, had noted the DNA test was not so routine: Phillips’ genetic material was found among that of four other people’s on the steering wheel.

The defense contended the test used to identify the DNA was not generally recognized by scientists as able to single out individual samples from such a mixed collection. Thus, Phillips’ DNA should have been deemed inadmissible under the Frye-Reed standard of admissibility of scientific evidence. But the Court of Appeals disagreed in its decision Friday.

The DNA test was conducted in accordance with the FBI’s quality assurance standards, the top court noted, rendering the results admissible at trial under Maryland’s DNA Admissibility Statute.

That law, found at Section 10-915 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, sought to eliminate questions about the admissibility of DNA evidence by permitting its introduction at trial provided the test complied with FBI standards, the court added.

The law “was not intended as a ‘best practices’ statute, such that DNA evidence that has been analyzed in accordance with the standards promulgated by the most rigorous standards-setting body available would qualify for automatic admissibility,” Judge Joseph M. Getty wrote for the court. “Instead the DNA Admissibility Statute allows for the admission of any DNA evidence, both cutting-edge and traditional, without the need to establish its general acceptance and reliability under Frye-Reed, so long as the analysis was performed in accordance with the minimum requirements promulgated by the FBI.”

Defense counsel can still challenge the state’s findings by cross-examining the prosecution’s experts regarding their qualifications or the legitimacy of their conclusions and by presenting contrary expert testimony, the high court said.

‘Especially disappointing’

Phillips’ attorney, Daniel Kobrin, said he had hoped the high court would have addressed the merits of his argument challenging the science behind the DNA test Prince George’s County investigators conducted on the steering wheel. The science is not generally accepted, as it has been abandoned in the District of Columbia, Florida and Texas, said Kobrin, an assistant Maryland public defender.

“It’s really not good enough for the FBI,” he added.

The high court’s decision is “especially disappointing because other labs in other states have been shut down for using these statistical analyses and our Court of Appeals didn’t even reach that issue,” Kobrin said. “We were hoping that the court would address the merits of this case.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, in a statement, hailed the high court’s “practical, common-sense approach” to interpreting the DNA admissibility law.

“The unanimous opinion has confirmed what most practitioners have assumed to be the case regarding the admission of DNA evidence for the past 17 years, and ensures that DNA evidence can continue to be admitted in every case where it is relevant,” the office stated.

In addition to Phillips’, the steering wheel contained the DNA of Wright, their child and two unidentified people.

A Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury, having seen and heard about the DNA evidence, found Phillips guilty of having shot Wright to death in a park behind the Hillcrest Heights Community Center on May 31, 2011, and then having left their child to die of hyperthermia in Wright’s car after Phillips drove it to a nearby residential parking lot.

The child, Jaylin Wright, was found dead in the car three days later, during which time the temperature inside the vehicle reached 125 degrees, according to trial testimony.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals affirmed Phillips’ murder convictions and double life sentences. He then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

The high court rendered its decision in Richmond D. Phillips v. State of Maryland, No. 7, September Term 2016.

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