Cases & Deals

Five public defender offices file amicus brief in cases raising questions related to trial courts' reliance on other courts' Frye rulings

Clients Office of the Appellate Defender Amicus Group

Jones Day filed an amicus brief on behalf of five public defender offices serving indigent clients in New York City to assist the New York Court of Appeals as it considered the circumstances under which and the extent that courts may rely on other courts' Frye admissibility rulings. The brief argued that the trial courts in the two cases under review, like many others, had blindly relied on the Frye rulings of other courts, even when those other courts did not conduct the inquiry Frye demands or even in the face of evidence showing that the relevant technique is not generally accepted as reliable. The brief urged the Court of Appeals to make clear that a court may rely on other courts' Frye rulings as an aid to determining admissibility only if the other courts conducted the thorough inquiry into general acceptance of reliability that Frye demands. Even then, the brief argued, other courts' Frye rulings do not create an irrebuttable presumption of admissibility—courts must always fulfill their gatekeeping role to ensure that only reliable evidence is put before the jury.

The New York Court of Appeals held that both trial courts abused their discretion in admitting the evidence derived from the DNA techniques at issue (low copy number DNA testing and the proprietary forensic statistical tool) without holding a Frye hearing. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the convictions in both cases because it found no harmless error. But it used the main case, People v. Williams, to stress the important gatekeeping role that trial courts play in ensuring that questionable science does not reach the jury. Of particular relevance to the amici's arguments, the Court of Appeals observed that the "repetition of a single, questionable judicial determination does not strengthen or add validity to such ruling, and it defies logic that an error, because it is oft-repeated, somehow is made right." Rather, the court continued, "[s]cientific community approval, not judicial fiat, is the litmus test for the admission of expert evidence generated from a scientific principle or procedure, and it is not to be assumed that one hearing is automatically 'enough' to hurdle a Frye inquiry in a different matter."

People v. Williams, No. APL-2018-00151 (N.Y.); People v. Foster-Bey, No. APL-2018-00157 (N.Y.)