Feb 23, 2005 4:00 pm US/Eastern
Baltimore, MD. (AP) A Baltimore judge rejected the use of gunshot residue evidence in a weapon’s violation case, saying a criminalist had reached conclusions based on criteria that fell short of accepted scientific standards.
Themelis said he excluded the evidence because the city’s only gunshot residue analyst, a criminalist at the Baltimore police crime lab, drew a conclusion the judge said is out of step with the consensus of the broader scientific community.
«I don’t think the test results are reliable,» Circuit Court Judge John C. Themelis said from the bench Tuesday, granting a defense request to exclude gunshot residue evidence in the weapons violation case of Michael Washington.
«I don’t see how any other opinion or ruling on my part would be consistent with due process.»
Themelis also called it «disturbing» that analyst Joseph Harant’s testimony during the two-day hearing contradicted his testimony in a separate case before a different judge in April.
Gunshot residue, tiny particles that explode from a gun when it is fired and can sometimes be collected from a suspect’s hands, has been used for years as key scientific evidence in the city’s prosecution of weapons, shooting and murder cases.
But attorneys with the forensics division of the state Office of the Public Defender claim there are problems with the way police collect and analyze the evidence.
Among their findings: possible contamination of the city lab facilities, the transfer of gunshot residue from police equipment to suspects’ hands, and, as pointed out in yesterday’s ruling, a lower standard for labeling something gunshot residue than in other police departments.
At issue in the Michael Washington case is a particle that was labeled gunshot residue even though it contained only two of the three elements that many scientists say are necessary to call a particle uniquely gunshot residue.
Baltimore police protocol provides for analysts to deem two-element particles as gunshot residue.
But Harant had testified in an April hearing that the definition of gunshot residue is «a particle containing lead, barium and antimony,» three elements that fuse together when a gun is fired. He said during that hearing that he had narrowed his definition of gunshot residue after attending a conference in 2000.
At Friday’s hearing, Harant said that in «very rare» instances — he said less than 5 percent of the time — he will conclude that a particle is gunshot residue if it contains only barium and antimony and if he can rule out other possible sources for the particle, such as automobile brake linings and fireworks.
Themelis said yesterday that he didn’t think Harant’s explanation was a generally accepted method of analysis used by other labs in the scientific community.
The judge said he was basing his ruling largely on Harant’s own testimony from the Jones hearing,
After Themelis’ ruling, Patrick Kent, chief of the public defender’s forensics division, said Harant should never again be allowed to testify in court on gunshot residue.
«The inescapable conclusion is that every case that Joseph Harant has touched needs to be reviewed,» Kent said, adding that Harant has been called as an expert witness in at least 60 Circuit Court cases.
«It is incumbent upon the state’s attorney’s office and the crime lab to withdraw him from any future cases based on his testimony in this case.»
But both prosecutors and police officials defended the analyst’s work and credibility.
William F. Cecil, a team captain in the state’s attorney’s Firearms and Violence Enforcement Division, said prosecutors will continue to call Harant as an expert witness.
«He’s a reliable guy who does his work well, as far as we’re concerned,» Cecil said.
Matt Jablow, a police spokesman speaking on behalf of the city’s crime lab, called Harant — who has been in the lab for 25 years — one of the department’s finest employees.
Although the judge excluded the gun residue evidence, Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Phelps said she will proceed with the case against Washington, who is charged with three weapons violations from an October 2003 incident.
Feb 23, 2005 4:00 pm US/Eastern