Friday, June 28, 2013

Mendocino/Lake County Medical Examiner: Forensic Fraud, Error, or Negligence?

As a practicing forensic scientist who testifies in court under oath and submits to the crucible of cross-examination, the author has great sympathy for other professionals that are willing to do the same. For instance, in a courtroom, it is easy for just about any facts, statements, and opinions to be savaged from their context by attorneys and painted to support multiple legal theories. Or they can simply be misunderstood and misrepresented. All of this while a forensic expert is required to sit silently and waits their turn to explain, if that moment comes at all. 

This is not what happened in the case of California v. Timothy S. Elliott.

Timothy S. Elliott -
In 2010, Timothy Elliott was convicted of 2nd Degree murder for the stabbing death of Samuel Billy. As reported in the Mendocino County District Attorney's Newsletter (Issue 11, 2010):

After 6 days of trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict on a charge of Second Degree Murder against Timothy Elliott. The jury also found Elliott personally used a knife in the commission of the murder.

Elliott encountered the victim, Samuel Billy, during a party at Shanel Drive on the Hopland Rancheria during the early morning hours of September 26, 2008. After an earlier fight involving Elliott and other subjects, Elliott and Billy engaged in an altercation during which Elliott was observed delivering a blow to Billy’s abdomen. Billy staggered off a few feet and collapsed in the parking lot with an apparent stab wound. Elliott fled the scene. After the stabbing Elliott arrived at the home of an acquaintance where he changed into some dirty clothes belonging to the acquaintance, leaving behind his own clothing and a knife. After police and medical personnel arrived Billy was flown to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where he died of the stab wound after emergency surgery.

Elliott will be sentenced on October 08, 2010. He faces a sentence of 16 years to life. Elliott was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Raymond Killion. 

In September of 2012, Mr. Elliott filed a writ of habeus corpus for a new trial based on evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel related to the forensic evidence, and the testimony of Dr. Jason Trent - the forensic pathologist for Mendocino and Lake counties. He was subsequently granted a hearing in June of 2013, as reported in Revelle (2013):

Elliott is due in court June 21 for a hearing to decide whether Public Defender Linda Thompson, who defended him at trial, erred in failing to ask for a hearing outside the jury's presence to exclude the 1.65-inch knife the doctor testified could have been used to inflict the fatal, 6-inch stab wound in Billy's abdomen.

"At trial, I was asked for my opinion of fellow pathologist Dr. Terri Haddix's conclusion that the knife in evidence could not, when fully inserted, inflict a six-inch deep wound," according to an April 7, 2012 declaration from Dr. Jason Trent, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Billy.

"I testified to my belief that her conclusion was incorrect. My opinion was based, as I stated at trial, on the knife blade measuring between three to four inches long."

Trent's declaration goes on to say appellate attorney Shannon Chase asked him to review his records and Haddix's report, including a photograph of the knife in question, showing it was shorter than he had thought during trial.

"Based on this information, I am not absolutely able to conclude whether this knife could have caused a six-inch deep wound," Trent's declaration says. "If I was told at trial that the knife blade was 1.65 inches long, I probably would have testified that this knife could not cause a six-inch deep wound."

"However," he continues, "keep in mind that the victim is dressed, is overweight and the blade strikes no object other than soft tissue."

In a more concise declaration dated Sept. 8, 2012, Trent states, "If presented with the correct measurements, those being a knife blade measuring 1.65 inches and a wound 6.7 inches deep, I would not disagree with Dr. Haddix's conclusion."

During the hearing, which was held on Friday, June 21 of 2013, both Elliott's public defender and Dr. Trent suffered severe criticism. As reported in Meadows (2013):

The Mendocino County medical examiner's credibility was called into serious question and the Mendocino County public defender was put on the stand over the possible bungling of a murder case, in an unusual all-day hearing in county Superior Court Friday. a hearing before Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman on Friday, Trent, who serves as the forensic pathologist for Mendocino and Lake counties, under questioning from Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Paul Sequeira, said the knife in evidence, even though it measured 1.65 inches long, could have been the weapon that drove the 6.7-inch stab would into Billy.

A jury in August 2010 convicted Elliott of second-degree murder in the stabbing of Billy, 29, also of Hopland. The men, both members of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, allegedly fought at a party on tribal land early on the morning of Sept. 26, the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office stated previously. Elliott was reportedly seen delivering a blow to Billy's abdomen, and Billy staggered a few feet and collapsed in the parking lot with a stab wound. The only witness was a young boy who said he saw the crime out his window. The defense tried to discredit the boy, noting his family were friends of the victim and that the night was very dark.

In the morning, Trent was asked over and over about his inconsistent testimony. In his written change of heart in April 2012 (and again in September of 2012) he agreed with the defense's expert witness that the knife in evidence could not have made the stab wound.

"At trial, I was asked for my opinion of fellow pathologist Dr. Terri Haddix's conclusion that the knife in evidence could not, when fully inserted, inflict a six-inch deep wound," read the declaration from Trent, who performed the autopsy on Billy. "I testified to my belief that her conclusion was incorrect. My opinion was based, as I stated at trial, on the knife blade measuring between three to four inches long."

However, on Friday he said, "Indeed I do," when asked by Sequeira if, knowing absolutely that the knife in question was 1.65 inches long, he still believed that knife could have been the knife that caused the fatal wound.

Sequeira went to lengths - bringing out a standard wooden 12-inch ruler - to display to Trent the difference between a 3- or 3.5-inch knife blade and a 6.7-inch wound and the difference between a 1.65-inch blade to 6.7 inches. Nonetheless, Trent said he "absolutely" still believed that with enough force, the smaller blade could still do the damage.

Trent said it was important to remember that the blade in evidence had exactly the same blunt and sharp sides which matched the wound itself. He also said that the victim was somewhat overweight and that if pushed with force through soft tissue, the smaller knife was capable of inflicting the fatal wound.

Earlier in the day, Mendocino County Sheriff's Detective Andrew Whitaker testified that back in September of 2008 he had chatted with Trent about the knife in his office when the knife was on the detective's desk being photographed. At that time, Whitaker said, he and Trent discussed the relatively short blade, but not specifics and Trent said informally that he thought it could be the weapon. Because of that informal opinion, Whitaker said, he sent the knife - which had been turned over to authorities weeks after the stabbing incident - to the state Department of Justice for forensic testing, something he said he would not otherwise have done.

Elliott's court-appointed private attorney Jan Cole-Wilson on Friday asked Trent over and over how he could be so inconsistent.

"I was wrong; I don't know what else to tell you," he kept saying about the two sworn declarations he made in 2012 about the knife. He also could not remember most of what Cole-Wilson wanted to know, such as when he first saw the knife, if he saw the knife before the trial, what he testified to during trial.
She pointed out - and Trent agreed - that making serious mistakes in criminal trials could cost him his job. But when she implied that he was changing his testimony now for the benefit of the District Attorney's Office, he denied it.

"That's what I swore to, that's what I signed, but I was wrong," he said again, about recanting his trial testimony.

After hearing testimony all day, Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman scheduled another hearing for August. She also made it clear that she her ruling would involve findings regarding Dr. Trent's testimony, as  reported in Meadows (2013):

"I intend to make some findings about Dr. Trent's credibility," she said. She noted that "under penalty of perjury" Dr. Trent had twice recanted his trial testimony and then "came to court today and under penalty of perjury gave equally emphatic testimony that his other sworn testimony was wrong.
"Dr. Trent's credibility is damaged," she concluded.

The reality is that Dr. Trent gave a forensic opinion (i.e., one that he felt was certain enough for court, to give under oath). He opined with certainty whether a particular knife could have caused a particular injury without examining the knife at all. On it's face, this practice seems professionally indefensible - violating even the most basic notions of wound pattern analysis.

What's worse, Dr. Trent did not seem interested in defending his admitted negligence. He almost seemed to think it was no big deal. To say nothing of not seeming to be too bothered by the fact that he twisted himself into a pretzel to give, and retract, multiple conflicting forensic opinions. 

Hopefully, this August, Judge Moorman will render a decision that appropriately accounts for Dr. Trent's actions, and those of his defense attorney, that best serves justice. This will give both of the counties that he serves the impetus needed to review his past cases for similar errors, as well as possibly consider the necessity of retaining someone that is not quite so cavalier with their forensic opinions.

Brent E. Turvey, MS - Forensic Science; PhD - Criminology
Author of:

Turvey, B. (2011) Criminal Profiling, 4th Ed., London: Elsevier Science

Turvey B. (2013) Forensic Fraud, San Diego: Elsevier Science

Savino, J. & Turvey, B. (2011) Rape Investigation Handbook, 2nd Ed., San Diego: Elsevier Science