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Home / Courts / Criminal Practice – Murder – Evidence – Expert Testimony – Bullets – Forensic Toolmark ID – Defendant’s Finances

Criminal Practice – Murder – Evidence – Expert Testimony – Bullets – Forensic Toolmark ID – Defendant’s Finances

State v. Britt (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-07-1234, 17 pp.) (John C. Martin, Ch.J.) Appealed from Robeson County Superior Court. (Gregory A. Weeks, J.) N.C. App. Click here for the full-text opinion.

Holding: N.C. courts have allowed expert testimony on firearm toolmark identification for decades; furthermore, defendant did not introduce any new or compelling evidence to challenge the reliability of the methodology. We uphold the trial court’s ruling that toolmark identification is sufficiently reliable.

We find no error in defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder.

Although the state did not present verification of SBI Agent Tanner’s training, and Agents Tanner and Ware were not members of a professional organization, Agents Tanner and Ware explained how firearm toolmark identification works and how they conducted their investigations such that they were better qualified than the jury to form an opinion in the instant case. The trial court assessed all the evidence regarding the agents’ credentials and methodology and found them competent to testify as experts. Thus, the ruling was not manifestly unsupported by reason, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing Agents Tanner and Ware to testify.

The trial court issued a pre-trial ruling limiting the state’s presentation of toolmark identification evidence. The trial court reversed its ruling based on defense counsel’s opening statement, in which counsel said defense experts would testify as to their opinion “that you cannot make a match, that there [are] simply not enough points of comparison on the two bullets….”

Defendant contends that his attorney’s statements, which “opened the door” to the admission of  the testimony of Agents Tanner and Ware that the two bullets were fired from the same gun, amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Defense counsel’s use of the word “match” was not an attempt to mischaracterize defendant’s evidence; rather, his words simply created an impression that the bullets did not come from the same gun. While this assertion allowed more persuasive expert testimony to be introduced, defense counsel conducted a zealous cross-examination of the state’s experts. Moreover, the court gave an amplified instruction to the jury, directing the jurors to consider the witness’ training, qualifications, and experience or lack thereof, as well as the reasons given for their opinion and the facts that support their opinion, in determining how much weight, if any, to give to the expert’s testimony. Thus, counsel’s statement was not so egregious as to render his performance deficient, depriving defendant of counsel as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Even though defendant’s falsification of tax returns in support of a loan application occurred the year before his wife’s 2003 murder, when viewed in conjunction with other evidence of the family’s financial hardships, defendant’s fraudulent conduct supported the state’s theory that defendant had a financial motive to murder his wife (for life insurance proceeds), which grew over a period of years. Moreover, the trial court instructed the jury to consider this evidence only as it related to motive. The trial court also suppressed evidence of defendant’s conviction for unrelated larceny charges in 1999. The trial court properly exercised its discretion in admitting some evidence under N.C. R. Evid. 404(b) and excluding other such evidence.

Finally, the trial court admitted a letter that defendant wrote in 1998 or 1999 detailing his precarious financial situation. The details in the letter, viewed in conjunction with other evidence, support the state’s theory that defendant had a financial motive to kill his wife. Admitting the letter was not an abuse of discretion.

No error.

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