A Colorado man who has insisted on his innocence for 30 years will get a new trial because the forensic analyst’s testimony in his trial is no longer supported by scientific evidence.
In order for someone to offer an expert opinion in court, the judge must be satisfied that they are an actual expert in a recognized field of expertise. In general, this means the person must testify only to matters of general scientific consensus.
What happens when scientific consensus changes? In the case of tool mark comparison and other forms of pattern matching evidence, the scientific consensus has changed dramatically over time.
In the early 90s, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) testified that James Genrich’s tools were the only tools in the world that could have made the marks at the crime scene.
There was no scientific underpinning to that testimony, a judge recently found. Since at least 2009, judges have been on notice that pattern matching analysis is not supported by studies or research. Some pattern matching techniques, like bite mark comparison, now appear to be entirely bogus.
That may be the case of toolmark comparisons, but this judge didn’t rule on that. What he did rule was that the ATF agent’s testimony about how certain he was of the match was unreliable “because there are no scientific principles underlying or supporting” that certainty, the judge wrote.
Since a jury might have evaluated the evidence differently if they had known that the agent’s opinion was an exaggeration, James Genrich deserves a new trial.
The stakes are high
This case involves serious allegations. James Genrich was convicted of causing a pipe-bombing in 1993 that killed two people. He was sentenced to life in prison.
That said, he has always insisted upon his innocence. He sees a new trial as an opportunity to be exonerated of this heinous crime.
The local DA told a reporter that his office is “heavily leaning” toward appealing the ruling instead of trying the case a second time. He stated that there was overwhelming evidence of James Genrich’s guilt.
But the judge didn’t agree. If the evidence of James Genrich’s guilt was overwhelming, the exaggerated evidence by the ATF agent would have been considered harmless. Instead, the judge considered it crucial enough to order a new trial.