In a criminal trial, a harmless error occurs when the trial court judge makes a mistake, but the mistake was not such that it impacted the outcome of the case. When there is a finding of harmless error, the appeals court will not reverse the decision based on that mistake. In this case, the Appellate Division examined whether the trial court erred in admitting low copy number (LCN) DNA evidence without first holding a Frye hearing.
In People v. Williams, months after fleeing from the scene where a young man was shot 4 times and killed, the defendant was arrested and charged with murder. There was testimony that the defendant shot the victim and then hid the gun in a former girlfriend’s apartment. The gun was recovered from a covered wall cavity in the apartment.
At trial the former girlfriend testified that the defendant forced her to hide the gun in her apartment and that he admitted to her that he had just shot someone. In addition, there was eyewitness testimony that the defendant was the shooter. The prosecution also presented DNA evidence purported to link the defendant to the gun. However, the DNA testing showed DNA on the gun from two unknown people. Initially, the medical examiner’s office was not able to link the defendant’s DNA to the DNA that was found on the gun. The prosecution produced a witness who used LCN testing, a different form of DNA testing that was more “sensitive” than traditional DNA testing. The witness testified that the LCN testing along with a proprietary “calculator” concluded that it was likely that the DNA mixture found on the gun was from the defendant and from one other unknown person.
Before trial, the defendant objected to the admission of the expert testimony about the conclusion reached by the LCN testing. In the alternative, the defendant requested a Frye hearing on the reliability of any evidence generated through the LCN testing. The trial court denied both of the defendant’s motions and permitted the testimony. The defendant was convicted of murder and appealed.
The basis of the appeal was that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the DNA evidence without holding a Frye hearing. Established in Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), the purpose of a Frye hearing is to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence. A Frye hearing is requested when evidence is submitted that the opponents of the evidence feel is not supported by published articles or prevailing scientific thought. During a Frye hearing it is up to the court to determine if the testimony was in fact developed based on accepted scientific methods.
The Appellate Division found that there was “marked conflict” with respect to the reliability of LCN DNA testing method within the relevant scientific community at the time the LCN issue was litigated in this case. There was also a question related to the proprietary “calculator” used along with the LCN testing as there is no evidence that it has been used and endorsed generally by the scientific community. There is only evidence that it is supported by those who have a professional interest in it being accepted. Based on this analysis, the Appellate Division agreed with the defendant that the DNA testimony should not have been admitted without first having a Frye hearing. However, the court also noted that this mistake on the part of the trial court did not matter as there was significant evidence against the defendant. There was video evidence, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of the former girlfriend. Aside from the DNA evidence, there was overwhelming evidence of the guilt of the defendant. It was very unlikely that the defendant would have been acquitted but for the trial court’s error. As a result, the guilty verdict was upheld.