Saturday, May 31, 2008
Dexter In The Dark?: Mississippi Court Finds Forensic Pathologist Properly Gave Expert Testimony On Blood Spatter Evidence
The Court of Appeals of Mississippi's recent opinion in Flaggs v. State, 2008 WL 2169747 (Miss.App. 2008), confirms that Mississippi courts are in line with most courts across the country in permitting forensic pathologists to render expert opinions regarding blood spatter evidence. In Flaggs, Tavares Antoine Flaggs was convicted of murder based upon the following facts:
In April, 2005 Derrick Wright was found dead in his apartment, lying on the floor covered in blood with what looked like cut marks all over him. Officer Robert Jackson was dispatched to the apartment and observed Wright dead on the floor on his back with his hands up. He observed faint footsteps that appeared to be in blood extending from the hallway to the walk-in closet and a white t-shirt that appeared to be soaked in blood. Subsequently, crime scene investigator Charles Taylor found cast-off blood stains, multiple impact blood stains on the north wall of the hallway in the apartment, a bloodstained towel in the garbage can, a knife blade with no handle in the sink, and two other knives on the counter by the sink. A fingerprint recovered from one of the knives was later identified as Flaggs' fingerprint.
Dr. Hayne, the forensic pathologist who performed Wright's autopsy on Wright's body, testified at trial as an expert witness for the State that Wright had sustained fifteen stab wounds, one chop wound, and three slash wounds, with the fatal injury being a stab wound to the carotid artery and jugular vein in the neck. He opined that a stab wound to the back of the hand, a slash wound to the left forearm, and chop wound to the fourth finger on the left hand indicated defensive posturing on the part of Wright. According to Dr. Hayne, the sites of the body on which these wounds were located are commonly used to protect the neck, face, and part of the head from injury; however, Dr. Hayne testified that he could not determine the order in which Wright's injuries were received, although he could say that there was heart activity at the time the injuries were sustained. Dr. Hayne concluded that Wright died as the result of a homicide.
Subsequently, over defense counsel's objection, the State questioned Dr. Hayne in hypothetical terms regarding the positioning of the blood spatter that was present at the crime scene. After being shown a diagram of the crime scene, Dr. Hayne testified regarding the blood spatter that, inter alia,
"It would indicate two things, counselor. The blood spattering could be cast off from a weapon or it could be cast off from the decedent, and the decedent could be moving in a backward position away from the indicated area where the blood spatter was located. That would be a distinct possibility. Falling backwards. He could have possibly been dragged forward into an enclosed area, which would seem less likely since I don't see any footprints in the area in the photograph you showed me."
This testimony contradicted Flaggs' defense, which is that he was acting in self-defense after Derrick Wright attacked him. After Wright was convicted of murder, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that Dr. Hayne was not qualified to render expert opinions regarding blood spatter evidence. The Court of Appeals of Mississippi noted that Dr. Hayne explained that the two main tasks in forensic pathology are "determination of the cause of death and determination of the manner of death, with the cause of death being the medical reason that a person died and the manner of death being the classification of the death as a homicide, suicide, accident, or natural." It further noted that "[t]he State contend[ed] that the field of forensic pathology encompasses the analysis of crime scenes, which would include blood spatter."
The Court then concluded that "[w]hile the State cites no authority supporting this proposition, we note that Dr. Hayne has been accepted in other cases as an expert in the analysis of blood spatter....Moreover, our supreme court has indicated that forensic pathologists are qualified to give opinions regarding blood spatter....Therefore, while there was no mention of blood spatter analysis during Dr. Hayne's expert qualification, we cannot say under the circumstances of this case that the trial court erred in allowing Dr. Hayne to testify regarding blood spatter."
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Mississippi opinion cited by the Court -- Whittington v. State, 523 So.2d 966, 976 (Miss. 1988) -- came to its conclusion without much analysis, and other courts which have come to similar conclusions have also not engaged in much analysis. See, e.g., State v. Goddard, 871 P.2d 540, 546 (Utah 1994).
So, do we have any readers with a medical background? Is "Dexter" author Jeff Lindsay a reader? Does anyone know whether we would usually expect a forensic pathologist to be able to interpret blood spatter evidence or whether the situation would be more analogous to a dermatologist testifying about HIV?