A 2009 case involving Eric D. Woodard recently found its way to the Second District Court of Appeals. The case originally dealt with a search of Woodard’s residence that turned up various drugs and resulted in the conviction of Woodard for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a second degree felony, and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, class B misdemeanors. In July of this year, Woodard appealed the conviction, questioning how the fingerprint evidence was admitted as well as the State’s expert witness.
The Original Case Against Woodard
In 2009, North Ogden police responded to a noise complaint at Woodard’s residence. Having already obtained a warrant to search his home, the officers detained Woodard outside while they attempted to search the residence. They ran into difficulties with house guests who “weren’t cooperating with the efforts to search the home.” Finally, police forcibly entered and began to search the house.
During the search, officers found a small bag of marijuana, a digital scale and cigarette rolling papers which Woodard admitted belonged to him. Officers also found a bag of 478 pills referred to as “Obama ecstasy” [an ecstasy mimic containing benzylpiperazine, a Schedule I controlled substance, shaped and stamped with the head of President Barack Obama]. Woodard denied knowing about the pills. However, fingerprint evidence on the bag of pills resulted in his conviction of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. It is this charge that Woodard was appealing.
Utah Rules of Evidence Used to Question Fingerprint Evidence in Appeal
Utah criminal proceedings are governed by Rules of Evidence which “should be construed so as to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination.” When it came to Woodard’s appeal, he based his case on two of these Utah Rules of Evidence.
The first claim made by Woodard was that the fingerprint evidence admitted in his case lacked foundation, addressing Rule 901 which requires that the proponent of an item of evidence authenticates or identifies it with “evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.” The rule includes a list of means by which authentication can be achieved.
In Woodard’s original case, the State provided a comparison of a photo of a fingerprint taken from the bag of “Obama ecstasy” with Woodard’s ten-print card [a fingerprint card taken when one is booked into jail]. When the defendant’s counsel asked the crime scene investigator, Paul Rimmasch, which photo was used as a basis for comparison with the ten-print card, Rimmasch was unable to say at that time exactly which one he had retrieved from a database known as the Digital Image Management System (DIMS).
However, given the fact that the State had the crime scene investigator, Sandra Grogan, testify to her part in taking the photos and uploading them to DIMS, as well as Woodard’s identifying information on the ten-print card–including the name of the jail, date and time of collection, and personal identifying information of Woodard such as social security number and date of birth–the Court of Appeals found that the fingerprint evidence was properly authenticated under rule 901.
The next Utah Rule of Evidence that Woodard attempted to use to his advantage was rule 702, which “assigns to trial judges a ‘gatekeeper’ responsibility to screen out unreliable expert testimony” further stating that “the principles of methods that are underlying in the testimony (1) are reliable, (2) are based upon sufficient facts or data, and (3) have been reliably applied to fact.”
For Woodard’s appeal, he stated the procedure discussed by Rimmasch for fingerprint evidence verification, a four-step procedure known as ACE-V, was not sufficiently reliable. He brought up the fact that the National Academy of Sciences and its operational arm, the National Research Council, have “noted a lack of empirical validation of fingerprint evidence and specifically questioned the efficacy of the ACE-V methodology.”
Rule 702 states that “judges should approach expert testimony with ‘rational skepticism.’” However, the Court of Appeals cited another part of rule 702 which states that the degree of scrutiny “is not so rigorous as to be satisfied only by scientific or other specialized principles of methods that are free of controversy” and that it “requires only a basic foundational showing of indicia [signs or indications] of reliability for the testimony to be admissible, not that the opinion is indisputably correct.”
Woodard also addressed the final step of ACE-V, which is “verification,” during which, according to Rimmasch’s testimony, “another examiner goes through the same process [as the original examiner] and looks at the print again.” Woodard stated that the State should have been required to produce this second examiner to verify the fingerprint evidence. However, the Court of Appeals rejected this argument as well based on the idea that the lack of the second verifier wouldn’t affect the reliability of Rimmasch as an expert.
The Importance of a Good Defense
The Court of Appeals went on to point out how Woodard was somewhat defeated by his own defense counsel. According to court documents, “Defendant’s trial counsel had full opportunity to challenge the ACE-V methodology and Rimmasch’s credibility on cross-examination.” This could have included questioning Rimmasch on who performed the fingerprint evidence verification and when it was done, calling that person as a witness, or calling their own expert witness to testify about the process in this particular case or problems with ACE-V in general. Rule 702 does allow for “contrary and inconsistent opinions” which leave it up to the jury to decide. However, Woodard’s counsel did none of this in an attempt to give Rimmasch’s testimony less weight. Ultimately Woodard lost the case.
This final point goes to show the importance of an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the Utah Rules of Evidence and how they might apply to fingerprint evidence. If you or someone you know is being charged with a crime and fingerprint evidence is being used as part of the prosecution’s case, make sure you contact a criminal defense attorney who will professionally handle your case.