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Two experts’ disagreement not grounds for new trial

A dispute between two experts does not mean that one of the witnesses’ testimony is false for purposes of a postconviction motion for a new trial, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 28.

The disagreement does not mean that a witness testified falsely, which if true would be grounds for a new trial, but in Gilbert v. State was not. The court reversed the trial court’s order granting a new trial.

Judge Michelle Larkin wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Peter Reyes and Jill Halbrooks.

The Court of Appeals also found that the trial court abused its discretion in not addressing a Knaffla claim that the motion was procedurally barred, the court said.

The judge did not explicitly determine that the claim was not barred, and did not explain the court’s implied determination to that effect.

Felon in possession

The petitioner was a passenger in a car he owned when it was stopped by police and searched. A firearm was in a backpack in the trunk, but petitioner is a felon and not authorized to possess a gun.

A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension forensic scientist took a DNA sample from the firearm and the petitioner. To get that sample, police removed the weapon from the trunk, exposing it to rain. The petitioner argued that the BCA witness testified falsely about the dissipation and transfer of DNA by water.

The state argued that the postconviction hearing was Knaffla-barred because the petitioner was aware of the BCA testimony at the time of his direct appeal. The court did not address the state’s argument that petitioner’s appeal was procedurally barred, and a hearing followed.

At that time, another forensic DNA consultant testified that the BCA’s testimony on the transfer of DNA was incorrect.

The postconviction court then determined that the BCA’s testimony was “false” and the information presented to the jury was false and misleading and also material to the conviction. The court ordered a new trial.

Abuse of discretion

The Court of Appeals noted that the state unequivocally asserted that the petitioner’s claim was barred under State v. Knaffla, because the claim was based on evidence that was known when the direct appeal was filed.

“Even though the state raised the Knaffla rule as a procedural bar to [petitioner’s] postconviction claim and presented argument on that issue, the postconviction court did not expressly determine the issue. Nor did the postconviction court offer any explanation to support an implied determination that petitioner’s claim was not procedurally barred. In doing so, the postconviction court exercised its discretion in an arbitrary manner,” Larkin wrote.

The Court of Appeals did not remand the case because the ruling on the merits could not be sustained. The false testimony claim asserted by the petitioner was analyzed under State v. Larrison, which sets out a three-prong test: that the testimony was false, that without the testimony the jury might have reached a different conclusion, and the defendant at trial was surprised and could not respond to the testimony.(Failure to prove the third factor is not fatal, the court noted.)

The court concluded the postconviction court abused its discretion by determining that [the BCA witness’s] testimony was false under Larrison.

The BCA expert did not recant her testimony or make a posttrial statement that materially contradicted her trial testimony, the Court of Appeals observed. The other forensic witness also did not materially contradict her testimony, the court said.

The court explained that a statement that merely contradicts earlier testimony, evidence of a witness’s general unreliability, and a witness’s failure to give a full explanation of her trial testimony are insufficient to establish false trial testimony under the Larrison test.

“Although the [forensic witness’s]  testimony regarding DNA transfer had impeachment value, her testimony did not render [the BCA witness’s] testimony false under the first prong of the Larrison test. Experts may disagree about certain aspects of their respective science,” the court said.

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