Validity of forensic ballistic under fire in murder case

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Jul. 22—WILLIAMSBURG — In a hearing Commonwealth Attorney Ronnie Bowling called "the most important hearing to date" in the case of a Corbin man accused of killing three individuals, one of whom was pregnant, the validity of forensic ballistic and firearms examination came under scrutiny.

"They're challenging the validity of the science that supports the forensic field of firearms examination," Bowling commented on the motion filed on behalf of defendant Paul Brock, 40, which prompted Tuesday's Daubert hearing. Bowling explained that a Daubert hearing is mechanism that allows a judge to hear scientific proof before a trial to determine whether it is trustworthy or not before it is presented to a jury at trial.

Bowling said that in the field of firearms examination, experts are able to observe the unique impressions left on fired bullets.

"Those are called lands and grooves," he said, also noting that there are several factors that lead to the unique impressions left on spent rounds by firearms. Bowling said the condition of the gun, make of the gun, how many times it's been shot, and the care of the gun can all lead to the unique lands and groves found on bullets.

During Brock's trial, Bowling hopes to be able to call on the examiner who took apart and examined the bullets used to kill Mary Jackson, her pregnant granddaughter, Tiffany Byers, and Byers' husband, Aaron Byers, back in February 2018.

"She examined them under a microscope and found that the lands and grooves on each individual bullet were of similar agreement, which is what they call it to determine if they were fired from the same gun," Bowling said. "Big point is — all the bullets from all the bodies came from the same weapon," he added. "That's what we're trying to prove and they're trying to exclude that theory."

During Tuesday's hearing, Bowling called Gregory Klees, an examiner with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, as an expert witness. Klees testified to the validity of firearms testing, saying that the theories and techniques of ballistics examination had been subject to review for more than 100 years.

"Except for some individual court cases, I don't know of any standard or federal courts that have excluded it all together," Klees answered when asked by Bowling if he knew of any jurisdictions disallowing firearms examination testimony.

The defense called Dr. Jeff Salyards, a Principal Analyst with Compass Scientific Consulting and former Chief Scientist for the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, as its expert witness.

In his testimony, Dr. Salyards raised concern on the validity of the peer-review process used by ballistic examiners, saying that until recently the firearms examination field did not use blind review studies. He also said that the error rate (under 2 percent on average) championed by the firearms examination field could be linked to the way studies surrounding the forensic science had been set up.

In the end, Whitley County Circuit Court Judge Dan Ballou ordered both sides to submit briefs of their arguments by August 2. Brock is due back in court August 19 for a status hearing prior to his jury trial scheduled September 8. He faces three counts of murder, one count of fetal homicide, and one count of tampering with physical evidence. Brock is currently being held in the Whitley County Detention Center.

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