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Criminal Law FLASHPOINTS March 2020

March 13, 2020Print This Post Print This Post

Matthew R. Leisten, Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office
815-319-4700 | E-mail Matthew R. Leisten

Illinois Supreme Court: Crime Scene Analyst Testified Beyond His Expertise

In People v. King, 2020 IL 123926, the Illinois Supreme Court disapproved of a crime scene analyst’s opinions in a murder trial regarding the cause and manner of the victim’s death, the significance of lividity on her body, whether her injuries were sustained before or after her death, and whether leaves found near her body matched leaves found near her residence because those opinions were outside the scope of his expertise. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶36. Trial testimony established that the defendant’s wife was found dead on railroad tracks near Geneva. The victim wore an upside-down sock and an underwire bra, did not have her contacts in, and did not have her iPhone band, which she normally wore while running. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶5.

The defendant testified that after he and the victim arrived home from a bar, the victim received text messages from another man. The defendant explained that he had arguments with the victim about this other man in the past. The defendant said he later went to a bank, and after returning, the victim changed her clothes and went for a run. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶7. The victim’s sister testified that she called her sister’s phone but that the police answered and informed her about her sister’s death. While the sister called the victim’s father with the news that the victim was dead, the defendant arrived to pick up the kids from the sister, which the sister said was surprising because the defendant never picked up the kids. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶8. The defendant told the victim’s father that the victim had gone for a run to clear her head after they had a fight. Id.

During the trial, the state’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Kalekar, explained that in her opinion, the cause of death was manual strangulation. Dr. Kalekar based that conclusion on hemorrhages in the victim’s eyes, throat, and tongue. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶14. Dr. Kalekar also opined that the presence of various pre-death, time-of-death, and post-death abrasions were inconsistent with the victim having fallen on the train tracks. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶14.

Renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Blum testified for the defense. In Dr. Blum’s opinion, the victim died from a cardiac arrest brought on by stress, alcohol intoxication, lack of sleep, and caffeine consumption. Dr. Blum said he only found one of the indicators of asphyxia and was unable to identify any injuries that were consistent with strangulation. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶18.

The state filed a motion in limine to call Mark Safarik as an expert witness on crime scene analysis. Safarik had worked as a crime scene and behavioral analyst for a consulting firm, had worked for the FBI for 23 years, and submitted a report regarding the Geneva murder. The motion in limine was granted over objection, and Safarik testified at the defendant’s trial. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶12.

Safarik testified that he analyzed and interpreted complex violent crime scenes to understand how and why a crime happened. Safarik was asked by the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office to determine whether the scene was staged, the offender’s risk level, a general offender motive, and the offender’s modus operandi. Safarik did not have any training or experience in medicine or pathology. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶15.

In addition to reviewing the police reports, crime scene photographs, autopsy reports, and witness statements, Safarik also considered the statements made by the Kings’ oldest son about where the victim usually ran and her iPhone app that recorded where she ran. According to this app, the victim usually ran in a park that was not near the railroad tracks. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶16.

Safarik reached 31 conclusions about the victim’s death. In summary, Safarik concluded in part that the victim died from strangulation, her iPhone was placed on the tracks by someone else, and her body was moved to the tracks after she died in another location. In Safarik’s opinion, the victim died from strangulation and the lividity on her legs was inconsistent with the defendant’s statements that the victim left their house at 6:30 a.m. to go running. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶17.

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, and his conviction was reversed by the Second District Appellate Court. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶17. The appellate court found that Safarik’s testimony was improper expert testimony. People v. King, 2018 IL App (2d) 151112, 127 N.E.3d 112, 430 Ill.Dec. 876. The Illinois Supreme Court likewise found that Safarik’s testimony consisted of certain improper expert opinions on the victim’s cause of death.

The Supreme Court reiterated the parameters of when experts are allowed to testify: “In Illinois, generally, an individual will be permitted to testify as an expert if his experience and qualifications afford him knowledge which is not common to lay persons and where such testimony will aid the trier of fact in reaching its conclusion.” 2020 IL 123926 at ¶35, citing People v. Enis, 139 Ill.2d 264, 564 N.E.2d 1155, 1164, 151 Ill.Dec. 493 (1990). In addressing the admission of expert testimony, the trial court should balance the probative value of the evidence against its prejudicial effect to determine the reliability of the testimony. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶35, citing 564 N.E.2d at 1165. In addition, in the exercise of its discretion, the trial court should carefully consider the necessity and relevance of the expert testimony in light of the particular facts of the case before admitting that testimony for the jury’s consideration. Id.

Expert testimony is necessary only when “the subject is both particularly within the witness’ experience and qualifications and beyond that of the average juror’s, and when it will aid the jury in reaching its conclusion.” 2020 IL 123926 at ¶35, quoting People v. Cloutier, 156 Ill.2d 483, 501, 622 N.E.2d 774, 784, 190 Ill.Dec. 744 (1993). Expert testimony addressing matters of common knowledge is not admissible “unless the subject is difficult to understand and explain.” 2020 IL 123926 at ¶35, quoting People v. Becker, 239 Ill.2d 215, 940 N.E.2d 1131, 1142, 346 Ill.Dec. 527 (2010). When determining the reliability of an expert witness, a trial court is given broad discretion. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶35, citing Enis, supra, 564 N.E.2d at 1165.

The court criticized Safarik for testifying about matters that went far beyond the field of “crime scene analysis.” 2020 IL 123926 at ¶36. Although Safarik was undoubtedly qualified as an expert in crime scene analysis, he was asked questions that were outside his field of expertise such as the cause and manner of the victim’s death, whether the victim’s lividity on her body was consistent with her position on the railroad tracks, whether her injuries were sustained before or after her death, and whether the leaves found on her body were consistent with the leaves found around the Kings’ home. Id. Safarik’s crime scene analysis expertise did not allow him to testify in an expert manner about forensic pathology and botany. Id.

The court noted that although expert medical testimony is not always necessary to establish cause of death, in this case it was necessary. This was because the two forensic pathologists disagreed about the cause of the victim’s death. Therefore, Safarik was in no position to jump in and provide his opinion about the cause of the victim’s death. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶37.

The court also emphasized that Safarik testified to numerous conclusions that the jury could have easily drawn for themselves, and, thus, they did not his expert assistance. 2020 IL 123926 at ¶38. For instance, an average juror could have concluded that the victim would not have left her contacts and armband at home when she went running or that she would not have put her sock on backwards, among other conclusions. Id.

For further cases in which experts have been prevented from testifying or their opinions were found to be insufficient, see also People v. Thompson, 2017 IL App (3d) 160503, ¶¶5 – 6, 1, 84 N.E.3d 565, 416 Ill.Dec. 583 (holding that state’s expert laid insufficient foundation for his opinion regarding muzzle velocity used to establish pneumatic (air) rifle used by defendant was firearm because expert’s opinion was based only on his experience, he did not calibrate his testing machine and was unaware about any calibration standards, he did not place gun in fixed position, and he did not know weather conditions on day of his testing); People v. Carlisle, 2015 IL App (1st) 131144, ¶66, 35 N.E.3d 649, 393 Ill.Dec. 877 (holding that defense expert who was certified firearms instructor was unqualified to opine that defendant’s shotgun was not deadly from distance in which it was fired because guns are per se deadly weapons under Illinois law); and People v. Tondini, 2019 IL App (3d) 170370 (holding that defense expert on use of force was properly barred because witness did not know anything about what happened during night in question and therefore could not offer his opinion that defendant stabbed victim in self-defense based on number of people involved in altercation, weapons used, and defendant’s thought process).

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