Decision not to conduct DNA testing didn't defeat conviction
Does failure to collect DNA evidence change the outcome of a recent case or will eyewitness accounts be sufficient?
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UNITED STATES V. PARKER, 2021 WL 3854780 (7th Cir. 2021)
Selina Schutt, her three young children and her boyfriend were driving a Hyundai Sonata into her Fort Wayne apartment complex when the car was hit with a barrage of bullets. A bullet grazed the boyfriend’s scalp. Schutt saw her ex-boyfriend, Odonis Parker, shooting from the side of the apartment building, wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt. She called 911 and reported that Parker had shot up her car and was shooting at her boyfriend.
When officers arrived and spoke with persons in other apartments, two witnesses reported the shooter was wearing a red or orange hoodie and carrying a big, long gun. Officers found a live round of 7.62 ammunition and a spent shell casing near the Sonata. Bullet holes were in the grille on the front of the car. A Ford Fusion in the parking lot had a red hoodie lying on the center console.
Parker walked out of one of the apartment buildings and Schutt identified him as the shooter. Parker had two sets of keys, including keys to the Ford Fusion. The Fusion contained Parker’s debit card and paperwork. Officers found an SKS rifle in the trunk with one magazine and a round of ammunition in the chamber.
Parker was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. The owner of the Ford testified that on the day of the shooting she loaned the car to Parker, among others, and that the keys in Parker’s possession were the only keys to the vehicle. She denied ever seeing the gun before. Parker’s counsel asked the crime scene investigator if he collected DNA samples from the gun. The prosecutor objected and the trial judge prohibited the question under evidence rules, “noting that Parker was not challenging the reliability of any specific investigative steps but was impermissibly arguing generally that the investigation was shoddy because it did not attempt DNA testing.” The investigator did not attempt to collect hair and fiber samples from the hoodie. Though the investigator submitted the rifle for fingerprint examination, he did not check for fingerprints on any bullets, reasoning that generally it is not possible to procure fingerprint evidence from bullets. The fingerprint examiner testified that he found no prints of value on the gun or magazine.
Each development in forensic science brings new possibilities for determining guilt or innocence. Advances in DNA science have helped some wrongfully convicted to show the error of their convictions. Though the costs of collecting, preserving and analyzing DNA evidence have fallen in the past few years, should officers collect DNA in every case, even when other evidence is strong? And should all persons at a crime scene be required to provide DNA samples for eventual analysis and possible connection to the crime? While these are difficult questions, officers on the scene must always be mindful of the potential claim that exculpatory evidence was lost forever because DNA or some other evidence was not collected.
Parker was convicted and sentenced to 11½ years. He appealed, claiming his Confrontation Clause rights were violated because he was not able to present to the jury that the investigator failed to obtain and analyze DNA evidence. Parker claimed the jury could have held a reasonable doubt that he possessed the rifle because his former girlfriend, the only eyewitness who could identify him by name, was biased and her identification was not backed by forensic DNA analysis.
The court of appeals disagreed, stating that “this was not a case made or broken on forensic testing. It was an eye-witness case – with circumstantial evidence as nails that sealed the coffin shut.” Because the evidence was “robust” without DNA evidence, the trial court did not err in barring Parker from asking about the lack of DNA evidence to connect him to the rifle.