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Riley v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 18, 2019

RILEY
v.
STATE.

          BETHEL, Justice.

         Following his conviction for the murder of Pauline McCoy, as well as his convictions for burglary and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony, Jimmy Lee Riley appeals from the denial of his motion for a new trial.[1]Riley argues that the trial court should have allowed certain expert testimony and that the trial court erroneously found that the "person unknown" exception tolled the statute of limitation on his non-murder charges under OCGA § 17-3-2 (2). Because we determine that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in disallowing expert testimony, we affirm Riley's murder conviction. However, we vacate the trial court's judgment with respect to Riley's convictions for burglary and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony and remand the case for the trial court to consider, under the facts of this case, when the State had sufficient information to establish actual knowledge of Riley as the "person committing th[ose] crime[s]," OCGA § 17-3-2 (2), thus ending the tolling of the statute of limitation.

         1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial shows the following. On December 21, 1986, a Richmond County Sheriff's Deputy found Pauline McCoy dead, lying face down on the floor of her kitchen surrounded by a large amount of blood. She had been beaten and stabbed, and an autopsy revealed that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to her chest. She had 15 stab wounds to her body, including defensive wounds that suggested she attempted to ward off her attacker. McCoy also had a neck hemorrhage, indicating that she had been strangled.

         Officers at the crime scene found a butcher knife near McCoy's body. Officers identified an open bathroom window as the killer's likely entry and exit point. Near this bathroom window, officers observed dried blood forming a fingerprint on the house's siding. Officers removed the siding and sent it to the GBI crime lab for processing. The single fingerprint was the only physical evidence that investigators had to link a suspect to the crime scene.

         Officers questioned McCoy's neighbors, one of whom stated that the previous evening, a black man she did not know (but whom she had seen standing near McCoy's house on occasion) asked her for a beer. The man appeared sweaty, and he was shaking. Another neighbor suggested to officers that he thought Riley, whom the neighbor had regularly seen standing near McCoy's house, could have possibly been involved. Riley's name was therefore included on a list of 12 to 15 possible suspects who lived nearby. Police also interviewed Riley's mother about him, collected some of Riley's clothing from her, and submitted Riley's fingerprint for comparison along with the fingerprints of five other suspects. But because the fingerprint collected at the crime scene was only a partial fingerprint, and due to the limitations of available technology at the time, the GBI crime lab was unable to match the fingerprint with any suspects.

         A quarter-century later, in 2012, improved fingerprinting techniques allowed investigators to definitively match the bloody fingerprint to Riley. Shortly thereafter, Riley was arrested and charged with murder, felony murder, burglary, and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony.

         Prior to trial, Riley filed a plea in bar arguing that the charges for burglary and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony were barred by the statute of limitation. The trial court found that the person unknown exception applied and denied the plea in bar.

         Riley also filed a motion in limine to exclude fingerprint evidence. In support of his motion, he attempted to admit Professor Jessica Gabel as an expert witness with respect to fingerprint evidence. The State objected, arguing she was unqualified based on her lack of experience as a fingerprint analyst or examiner. Riley argued that Gabel was qualified based on her research into the reliability of forensics, her status as a professor who taught forensics to law students, and her work in publishing and speaking on forensic science. The trial court sustained the State's objection. At trial, Riley again attempted to have Gabel testify, but the trial court excluded her testimony. On October 23, 2013, Riley was convicted of all four counts.

         Riley does not challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. Nevertheless, in accordance with this Court's practice in murder cases, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational jury to find Riley guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979); see also Vega v. State, 285 Ga. 32, 33 (1) (673 S.E.2d 223) (2009) ("It was for the jury to determine the credibility of the witnesses and to resolve any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence." (Citation omitted.)).

         2. Riley argues that the trial court erred in failing to admit Gabel as an expert in forensic science. We disagree.

To qualify as an expert generally all that is required is that a person must have been educated in a particular skill or profession; [her] special knowledge may be derived from experience as well as study. Formal education in the subject at hand is not a prerequisite for expert status. The trial court has broad discretion in accepting or rejecting the qualifications of the expert, and its judgment will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Allen v. State, 296 Ga. 785, 790 (7) (770 S.E.2d 824) (2015).

         Riley argues on appeal that the trial court should have permitted Gabel to be qualified as a general "forensic expert." However, Riley attempted to admit Gabel as an expert specifically in fingerprint evidence at a pretrial hearing. Because the trial court determined that she was not qualified to testify as an expert on fingerprint analysis, Riley then attempted to admit Gabel as a general forensic expert at trial with the intention of questioning her particularly on fingerprint evidence and examination. The trial court denied Riley's request, finding that such testimony would be within the purview of a fingerprint expert - and the trial court had already determined that Gabel was not so qualified.

         At the hearing on Riley's motion in limine, Gabel conceded that she was not a fingerprint examiner, had no training as a fingerprint analyst apart from a single semester during her undergraduate studies, had not analyzed fingerprints professionally as a lead analyst, and had not conducted scientific or empirical studies on fingerprint evidence specifically. Under these circumstances, we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion in declining to admit Gabel as an expert witness with respect to fingerprint evidence. Compare McCoy v. State, 237 Ga. 118, 119 (227 S.E.2d 18) (1976) (officer sufficiently qualified to testify as expert on fingerprint evidence where officer had relevant formal training and years of on-the-job experience); Tanner v. State, 228 Ga. 829, 830-831 (4) (188 S.E.2d 512) (1972) (expert witness was qualified to opine on fingerprint comparisons where witness had completed 80 hours of courses on the ...


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