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Connecticut Supreme Court: When Expert’s Testimony Asserts Truth of DNA Profile Prepared by a Different Non-Testifying Expert, Confrontation Clause Is Violated

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that when an expert witness testifies to the truthfulness and accuracy of a DNA profile prepared by a different expert who did not testify the Confrontation Clause is violated.

Eugene L. Walker and two accomplices attempted to rob Neville Malacai Registe during a purchase of marijuana from Registe. According to eyewitness Stephon Green, Registe was shot and killed by a man wearing a black bandana. The bandana was recovered from the crime scene.

Police took buccal swabs from Walker and his two accomplices “for purposes of obtaining a DNA sample” that “will be of material aid in determining whether the defendant committed the crime of felony murder.”

At trial, forensic analyst Heather Degnan testified that the buccal swabs were sent to the “known processing group” — a group within the laboratory that processes all known DNA samples for use in comparisons. Degnan testified that she developed a DNA profile from the black bandana and that she then compared the profile she developed with the three profiles from buccal swabs developed by the known processing group.

Based on her comparison, she concluded Walker was a contributor to the DNA recovered from the bandana, but his two accomplices were eliminated.

Degnan testified that she neither participated in generating the DNA profiles from the buccal swabs nor was she present when they were generated. When asked if she was “swearing to the accuracy” of the DNA profile, Degnan said “yes.”

She testified that the processing group provided her with “paperwork” wherein “all of the checkboxes were checked,” meaning the analysts who processed the buccal swabs “did it properly, followed standard operating procedures.”

Additionally, Degnan’s report was admitted into evidence, and the report stated the buccal swabs were analyzed in accordance with standard laboratory procedures. No one from the processing group testified. Walker was convicted of, inter alia, felony murder.

On appeal, he argued that his rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated. The Appellate Court affirmed his conviction, and the Connecticut Supreme Court granted his certification to appeal.

The Supreme Court first observed that Walker’s error was not properly preserved, so his claim would be reviewed under State v. Golding, 567 A.2d 823 (Conn. 1989), which requires Walker to show: (1) the record is adequate to review the claimed error, (2) the claim alleges a violation of a constitutional right, (3) the violation exists and deprived him of a fair trial, and (4) the State has failed to demonstrate the error was harmless.

The Court determined he satisfied factors (1) and (2), and the State made no attempt to demonstrate the error was harmless.

Consequently, the Court had to determine whether Walker satisfied the third factor, i.e., did he establish a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation?

There are three components to a Confrontation Clause violation: (1) whether the evidence was hearsay, (2) whether the evidence was testimonial, and (3) whether the defendant was given a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness who did not testify. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). Hearsay is a “statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the proceeding, offered in evidence to establish the truth of the matter asserted.” Conn. Evid. § 8-1(3). Inadmissible facts upon which experts customarily rely in forming opinions can be derived from sources such as conversations, informal opinions, written reports, and data compilations. Millium v. New Milford Hospital, 80 A.3d 887 (Conn. 2013). But the underlying information upon which the expert’s opinion is based may not itself be admitted into evidence for its truth. Id. That is, expert witnesses may base their opinions on the testimonial findings of other experts without violating the confrontation clause if those findings are not themselves put before the jury. Williams v. Illinois, 567 U.S. 50 (2012). Out-of-court statements are testimonial when the circumstances would lead an objective witness to reasonably believe that the statements would later be used in a prosecution. State v. Slater, 939 A.2d 1105 (Conn. 2008). 

The Connecticut Supreme Court determined Degnan’s testimony was hearsay because she offered as truth the DNA profiles developed by the processing group, vouched for their accuracy in her report, and her report along with her testimony was presented to the jury. The known processing group’s DNA profiles, or their “statements,” were testimonial in nature. The group received the police request that stated a DNA profile was material in determining whether the defendant committed felony murder. Further, the known processing group routinely assisted law enforcement in developing evidence for use in later prosecutions. Walker was not provided opportunity to cross-examine anyone from the processing group prior to trial, and no one from the processing group testified at trial.

The Court concluded that Walker’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was denied. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court and remanded to that court with directions to reverse the trial court’s judgment and to remand the case to the trial court for a new trial. See: State v. Walker, 212 A.3d 1244 (Conn. 2019). 

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