In 2010, Michael Ryan was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death for a 2007 homicide. While the case was on direct appeal and as a result of the Motion for Appropriate Relief hearing, an order issued by Judge W. Erwin Spainhour granted Michael Ryan a new trial in 2017. The State appealed Judge Spainhour’s ruling and on Sept. 27, 2019, the NC Supreme Court issued a per curiam order affirming Judge Spainhour’s decision.
Because one member of the NC Supreme Court did not take part in the decision and three members voted to affirm and three members voted to reverse the opinion of the Superior Court, the order granting the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief was left undisturbed and stands without precedential value.
There are several reasons why a new trial had been granted, including failure of defense counsel to call witnesses who would have supported the defendant’s alibi and impeached other witnesses. Additionally, and the subject of this blog post, the Court cited the defense’s failure to present expert testimony during trial and that the prosecution’s DNA examiner “failed to follow scientific protocol and included scientifically invalid interpretations of DNA samples.” (p. 11). The above led to the Superior Court to find that the defendant was afforded ineffective assistance of counsel.
During the Motion for Appropriate Relief evidentiary hearing, the defense called upon two expert witnesses in addition to the original DNA examiner. The Court found that the SBI agent performing the DNA analysis “… used scientifically incorrect interpretation of the samples in forming her opinions that were offered at trial” and that the protocols used by the analyst “are no longer accepted by experts in the field of DNA analysis.” (p. 3). Furthermore, the Court referred to the subjectivity of DNA interpretation and found that the agent’s subjective interpretations “fell below and were inconsistent with scientifically acceptable standards” (p. 4). The Court found that “if accepted guidelines for interpretation had been followed, the defendant Ryan would have been excluded as a contributor” whereas the state’s expert had testified that the defendant could not be excluded as a contributor of DNA to some of the items of evidence (p. 4).
The Superior Court found that the defendant was afforded ineffective assistance of counsel under the Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) standard. The Court also cited Rompilla v. Beard, 593 U.S. 374 (2005) which held that ineffective assistance of counsel occurs when counsel fails to provide experts with easily obtainable reports which would have resulted in measurably more effective testimony.
Mr. Ryan was represented by Lisa Dubs, Bill Massengale, and Marilyn Ozer in seeking this relief. Steve Ehlers and Jackie Gonzales worked as investigators for the defense. Dr. James Thomas McClintock and Dr. Maher “Max” Noureddine were called by the defense at the evidentiary hearing.