7th Circuit: Exclusion of cross-examination of DNA evidence didn’t contribute to verdict in shooting case

The exclusion of cross-examination of DNA evidence did not contribute to the verdict handed to a Fort Wayne man for shooting at his ex-girlfriend and her children, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Tuesday.

Odonis Parker was convicted and sentenced by a jury to 114 months in prison, followed by a two-year term of supervised release, after he fired multiple shots at Selina Schutt as she drove into her apartment complex with her three young children and boyfriend in the vehicle.

Parker, who had been recently estranged from Schutt, hit the vehicle with a barrage of bullets. Police investigating the scene after the incident found several pieces of evidence when Parker walked out of a neighboring building.  He was taken into custody and a grand jury subsequently charged him with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

At issue in Parker’s case was whether he possessed the firearm, and before trial, Parker filed a motion requesting voir dire questioning of prospective jurors on the importance they might assign to DNA evidence.

The Indiana Northern District Court declined to ask the questions, finding them unnecessary to seating a fair and impartial jury and noting his concern with asking questions that advocate a party’s theory of the case. It also barred Parker from discussing a lack of forensic testing during his opening statement, “until such time as the court could determine whether that line of questioning was admissible.”

Finally, the district court noted that if the defense laid the proper foundation for an attack on the forensic work, it could ask such questions of the witnesses during cross-examination and then include argument about the lack of forensic testing in the closing argument.

“In this case, it is beyond reasonable doubt that any exclusion of cross-examination about the DNA evidence did not contribute to the verdict obtained. The evidence of Parker’s guilt was overwhelming,” Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote in affirming the district court.

“Parker argues that the crux of his strategy was to cast reasonable doubt that he possessed the firearm, arguing that the only eyewitness who could identify him by name was biased and her identification was not backed by forensic evidence,” Rovner wrote. “Pointing out the lack of forensic evidence, he argues, was essential to his case. Information about the police department’s failure to conduct DNA testing, however, would have added little, if anything to Parker’s defense.”

The 7th Circuit also noted that the jury already knew that the police did not find any fingerprint evidence on the weapon, magazine, or bullets and did not look for hair and fiber samples. The case, it pointed out, was an eye-witness case “with circumstantial evidence as nails that sealed the coffin shut.”

“Indeed, the government lacked forensic evidence, but the circumstantial evidence was robust — the car keys, the documents with Parker’s name, the identification of a man in a red hoodie, the red hoodie in the car, and Parker’s proximity to the scene of the crime,” Rovner wrote. “The additional evidence, or rather lack thereof — that the police also did not test the weapons for DNA — would have added little or nothing for the jury’s consideration. Consequently, we can conclude that any error would have been harmless.”

The case is USA v. Odonis Parker, 20-1231.

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