People v. Cadman Williams
People v. Williams (& People v. Foster-Bey) (decided March 31, 2020)
Issue: Where the court declined to hold a Frye hearing to assess whether OCME’s novel high-sensitivity LCN DNA testing and its Forensic Statistical Tool produced results that were generally accepted as reliable in the scientific community, and instead relied on conclusions reached by two trial-level decisions finding general acceptance, whether it was error depriving appellant of due process to admit the results of those processes, which purported to provide very strong support for the People’s contention that appellant had handled the alleged murder weapon.
Held: The trial court abused its discretion in admitting the results of OCME’s LCN DNA testing and its Forensic Statistical Tool without a Frye hearing, because the motion papers did not establish that the results of those tests had been generally accepted as reliable within the scientific community. But the errors were harmless.
CAL observes: At the time of the court’s initial decision denying Williams’ motion to preclude the results of LCN testing and the FST, there was a single post-Frye-hearing decision on each process that had found general acceptance. People v. Megnath, 27 Misc.3d 405 (Queens Cty. Sup. Ct. 2010), found that LCN testing was generally accepted as reliable. People v. Rodriguez, an unreported New York County Supreme Court decision, found that the FST was generally accepted as reliable.
Williams argued that one post-Frye-hearing decision on a novel scientific test is insufficient to relieve a court of the responsibility to conduct a Frye hearing on general acceptance, particularly when the opponent documents his challenge to general acceptance with credible expert source materials. The absence of other court decisions showed novelty, not general acceptance; LCN and FST were brand new techniques whose reliability had not yet had an opportunity for careful review in the courts.
Both the four-judge majority opinion, written by Judge Fahey, and the three-judge concurrence written by Judge DiFiore, agreed that LCN & FST had not reached the level of general acceptance. Despite Judge DiFiore’s aggrievement by Judge Fahey’s use of what she described as “perjorative” language when discussing OCME’s tests, and the State’s Commission on Forensic Science and its “highly credentialed DNA subcommittee,” both agreed that the tests had not yet reached the level of general acceptance. Little separated the two opinions on the legal questions. They both carefully marshaled the evidence of general acceptance for each process, and concluded that, at the time the Frye hearings were denied, the accuracy of the two processes had not evolved to the point of general acceptance.
Aside from deciding the case before it, and that the two categories of tests were not yet reliable, Judge Fahey scrupulously avoided refining the Frye rule, merely restating the oft-stated rules that led to the confusion in the trial courts that allowed them to dodge Frye hearings below. The decision to grant or deny a Frye hearing, Judge Fahey explained, is a discretionary one resting on whether “[c]ertain materials, including texts, laboratory standards, and articles issued with respect to the technique in question” show general acceptance. By Fahey’s reckoning the abuse of discretion here was not deferring to a single post-Frye hearing finding of general acceptance, but deferring to such findings that were incorrectly decided.
While Williams had contended that it is never appropriate to deny a Frye hearing when the denial rests on a single prior Frye ruling in another case, Judge Fahey went out of his way to reserve for trial courts the right to deny a Frye hearing based on a “single, sound, prior judicial opinion on a consonant question.” Rather than clarify how to assess future novel scientific tests, Judge Fahey’s opinion does no more than repackage decades old precedent. Rather than give future courts the tools for assessing general acceptance, Fahey’s opinion reiterates the importance of discretion. It was just such a lack of clarity and guided discretion that led dozens of NYC trial courts to abuse their discretion with LCN testing and the FST, concluding that a single trial court decision on each issue empowered them to deny Frye hearings. The Williams decision, while correctly recognizing the lack of general acceptance of LCN DNA testing and the FST, does little to refine how courts should approach such questions.