Defenders should take note of State v. Koiyan, COA19-951, an April 7, 2020 decision where the NC Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred by admitting fingerprint testimony where the examiner “failed to demonstrate that he ‘applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case,’ as required by Rule 702(a)(3).” p. 10. However, the defendant could not show that he was prejudiced as a result of the error, so the Court of Appeals found no plain error. Jillian Katz represented Mr. Koiyan on appeal.
The Court of Appeals found that the case was similar to State v. McPhaul, 256 N.C. App. 303 (2017) in that the examiners in both cases explained fingerprint comparison methodology in general, but failed to provide any explanation for their conclusions in the case at hand. Testimony of the examiners “had the impermissible effect of ‘implicitly ask[ing] the jury to accept [his] expert opinion that the prints matched.’” p. 10 citing McPhaul, 256 N.C. App at 316. This type of testimony fails to satisfy prong 3, the “as applied prong” of Rule 702(a).
Because there was no objection to the testimony at trial, on appeal the defendant had to show plain error, demonstrating that a fundamental error occurred at trial which includes demonstrating prejudice, or that the error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.
It is worth noting that the examiner in this case had sufficient qualifications, training and expertise to provide expert testimony. The examiner had worked as a fingerprint examiner for 14 years, had a degree in criminal justice, two years of in-house training with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Crime Lab*, had testified as an expert witness in latent fingerprint identification more than 75 times in state and federal courts, and estimated that he had identified and analyzed “tens of thousands” of fingerprints. Also, the examiner was able to explain the principles and methods that his field utilizes. Where his testimony failed was in explaining how he applied the principles and methods and arrived at the conclusions in this case. p. 10.
This case demonstrates that at trial, even if an expert is well-qualified and testifies to use of reliable principles and methods, it is still necessary for the attorney to scrutinize whether the expert adequately explains how they applied the methodology to the case at hand. If they fail to do so, the attorney must object under Rule 702(a)(3) in order to potentially exclude the testimony at trial and preserve the issue for appeal.
*While the opinion references training from the State Crime Lab, the examiner in question received their training and was employed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Crime Lab.