People v. Levan Easley
Factual Background: Video footage showed Mr. Easley entering a store and then being attacked by several men who pinned him against a shelf. During the fight, someone yelled that a man “in black” had a gun, but no one identified Mr. Easley as that man. Eventually, the men attacking Mr. Easley scattered and he (according to the majority) set something on the shelf in front of him before running off himself. After a couple of minutes, police found a gun on the shelf.
OCME tested DNA found on the trigger of the gun using a computerized forensic statistic tool (“FST”) to connect it to Mr. Easley, who was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Specifically, the FST testing found that the DNA mixture on the gun was 4.57 million times more likely to be comprised of the DNA of Mr. Easley and two other unknown subjects rather than simply three unknown subjects. When Mr. Easley moved for a Frye hearing to determine the admissibility and scientific reliability of the FST used, the trial court denied the hearing on the basis that a “court of coordinate jurisdiction” had found FST testing to be reliable.
The Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed, finding that the trial court appropriately relied on the decision of a court of coordinate jurisdiction to find that the FST was reliable and generally accepted by the scientific community.
Issue Before the Court: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying a Frye hearing with respect to the FST used by OCME to tie Mr. Easley’s DNA to that found on the trigger of a recovered gun.
Held: The trial court did abuse its discretion, as it is error to admit low copy number (“LCN”) or FST DNA evidence without first holding a Frye hearing to determine whether the methodology used has been accepted as reliable by the scientific community. But (surprise, surprise) the Court found the trial court’s error to be harmless because, according to the Court, the video allegedly showing Mr. Easley place something on the shelf where officers found a gun provided overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Interesting in this case, though, is the dissent written by Judge Rivera and joined by Judges Wilson and Troutman. The dissent disagreed that the video did not show Mr. Easley place something on the shelf; instead, the video showed him reach between two boxes and the majority only inferred that he placed something there. The dissent further pointed out that the video never showed Mr. Easley with a gun, that no eyewitness saw him with a gun, and that there were no fingerprints on the weapon. Thus, the prosecution had relied heavily on the DNA evidence and the Frye error was not harmless.
CAL Observes: This is a good reminder that, as of now, a trial court must hold a Frye hearing for any case involving low copy number or FST DNA evidence. See also People v. Williams, 35 NY3d 24 . However, Easley unfortunately joins the legion of cases for which the Court of Appeals has found an error impacting seemingly crucial evidence but has nevertheless ruled the error to be harmless. That said, the dissent is useful for the proposition that an error cannot be harmless where remaining evidence requires speculation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.