The Maryland Supreme Court Ends Practice of Firearms Experts Testifying in Criminal Proceedings
The Maryland Supreme Court made a groundbreaking ruling on Tuesday, putting an end to the long-standing practice of calling in firearms experts during criminal proceedings. In a 4-3 opinion, the majority of justices deemed the scientific methodology of firearm “tool mark” analysis unreliable for linking a gun to a specific bullet.
However, the ruling, written by Chief Justice Matthew J. Fader, still allows examiners to testify when patterns and markings on bullets are consistent or inconsistent with those fired from a known firearm.
This ruling comes as a response to an appeal of a murder case in Prince George’s County, and it will have a binding effect on lower courts throughout the state.
Until this decision, it was common for firearms examiners to testify that a gun found by law enforcement had fired bullets or casings discovered at a crime scene, based on their forensic analysis.
When a shooting occurs, the crime scene is typically sectioned off with yellow tape until crime lab technicians arrive to collect evidence for analysis. Fired cartridge casings are often a crucial piece of evidence.
The casings surround the bullet and are marked by the gun’s firing pin. When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin ignites a small explosion, propelling the bullet down the barrel. The barrel’s twisted metal, known as “rifling,” helps spin the bullet for accuracy.
Supporters of the practice argue that firearms examiners rarely make incorrect matches after conducting extensive analysis. Critics, however, claim that many firearm analysis studies count inconclusive results as correct, artificially inflating the error rate.
Attorneys on both sides of the appeal cited studies showing error rates ranging from 0% to 50% for such examinations.
Justice Steven B. Gould, one of the dissenting justices, argued that the evidence presented in the majority’s analysis was sufficient to support an expert witness’s opinion that the bullets recovered from the murder scene were fired from the defendant’s revolver.
“Our concern is this: When the examiner does declare an identification or elimination, we want to know how reliable that determination is,” Gould wrote. “The record shows that conclusive determinations of either kind (identification or elimination) are highly reliable.”
Assistant Maryland Attorney General Andrew J. DiMiceli advocated for the use of tool mark analysis in courtroom trials. He argued that while experts cannot testify with complete certainty, they should still be allowed to inform the jury, based on their tests and opinion, that a specific gun fired a specific bullet.
The Washington Examiner reached out to the office of Attorney General Anthony Brown for a response.
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