Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Ruling on DNA Experts

Appellant in case challenged numerous rulings from Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), some related to testimony of DNA experts. The Court upheld these rulings.

Facts: The core of this case (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Stephen Treiber – Supreme Court of Pennsylvania – Eastern District – August 17th, 2015) involves an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from a PCRA opinion.  Treiber’s appeal was on fourteen issues, many including issues related to expert witness testimony.  Specifically, he states that counsel for his trial failed to challenge canine DNA evidence brought forth by the state and that said DNA evidence was false and unreliable, thus violating his rights to due process and a fair trial.  Evidence analysis & preservation expert witnesses will find the outcome of this case of interest to their practice.

In March 2001, the appellant’s daughter, Jessica, died in her home after it was purposefully set afire by the appellant.  Both he and his girlfriend were able to escape.  Treiber was charged and convicted of first degree murder, arson endangering persons, arson endangering property, and recklessly endangering another person. After subsequent appeals (all denied), the appellant filed the PCRA motion, which was denied.

Part of the Commonwealth’s case entailed a theory that the appellant tried to make it appear that someone else started the fire by concocting a threatening note and putting it on the mailbox.  A scientist for the Commonwealth found two hairs stuck to the note and concluded that they belonged to a dog and the state subsequently sent the sample to Joy Halverson, a veterinarian, epidemiologist, and forensic canine DNA analyst. Appellant’s counsel contacted Dr. Marcia Eggleston, a geneticist working with animals at the University of California, to ascertain if a defense expert should be present during the testing and she responded no, but offered to review the findings.  Appellant’s counsel thus abandoned any further questions on the validity of the canine DNA evidence At the trial, Dr. Halverson opined that, based on the evidence, it was 1,000 times more likely that the hair found on the note came from Appellants dog than another dog, thus adding to the theory that Treiber wrote the note.

At the PCRA trial, appellant provided testimony of Dr. Eggleston, who opined that, even though canine DNA was accepted in the scientific community, Dr. Halvertson’s methods used in this case were not.  She stated that there was no reliable way to determine whether or not the hair from the note came from the appellant’s dog.

Discussion: The appellant stated that his trial attorney’s ineffectiveness at the trail was fourfold: 1) filing to file a Frye motion challenging the canine DNA evidence, 2) failing to challenge Dr. Halverson’s qualifications, 3) failing to cross-examine the DNA experts, and 4) failing to present a canine DNA expert at trial.

The PCRa court denied these claims, stating that Dr. Halverson was qualified to testify at trial, thus rejecting appellant’s claim that his counsel was ineffective.  Regarding the admissibility of the DNA evidence, the PCRA court held that the canine DNA evidence was not novel at the time of the trial and was thus admitted.

In addition, there was overwhelming evidence that Treiber was guilty of the crime and thus, it would be difficult to believe that the outcome would have been different if the appellant’s counsel at trial challenged the canine DNA evidence.

Held: Appellant’s claims regarding his counsel’s lack of effectiveness for challenging the canine DNA evidence failed.