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State v. Isom

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

March 15, 2016

Curtis M. Isom

Page 1211

          Providence County Superior Court. (P2/11-2668A). Associate Justice Stephen P. Nugent.

         For State: Christopher R. Bush, Department of Attorney General.

         For Defendant: Catherine Gibran, Office of the Public Defender.

         Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Page 1212

         Maureen McKenna Goldberg, Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on December 1, 2015, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The defendant, Curtis M. Isom (Isom or defendant), appeals from a judgment of conviction after a jury trial of one count of breaking and entering. Before this Court, the defendant argues that the trial justice erred in: (1) denying his motion for a judgment of acquittal; (2) limiting the scope of his cross-examination of the state's fingerprint expert; and (3) denying his motion for a new trial. Having carefully considered the memoranda submitted by the parties and the arguments of counsel, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and the appeal may be decided at this time. We affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         Antoinette Bryant (Bryant) initially did not notice that anything was amiss in her home. When she returned from work on the afternoon of March 28, 2011, the front door of her family's two-story condominium in Johnston, Rhode Island was unlocked, but Bryant assumed that her daughter Essence had been careless when leaving their home that morning.[1] The house looked as Bryant had left it; save for the unlocked door, nothing seemed out of place. It was not until Bryant's son Jarell returned home from school and noticed that his Nintendo Wii gaming console was missing that Bryant realized that something was wrong. Upon further inspection, Bryant discovered that the dresser drawers in her second-floor bedroom were open; her jewelry boxes and a teapot in which she stashed coins were empty; a diamond necklace and other jewelry were missing from her bedroom closet; and a computer and digital coin bank were nowhere to be found. Essence, now home from school, noticed that her brother Oginga's bedroom door was ajar, even though the door usually remained closed when he was away at college. Looking inside Oginga's bedroom, located at the ground level, Essence found the window open and the bed pushed out from its usual spot against the window. Bryant called 9-1-1 and reported a break-in.

Page 1213

          Several officers from the Johnston police department responded to the dispatch. Detective Raymond Peters (Det. Peters) of the department's forensic unit took photographs and dusted the scene for fingerprints. The detective recovered fingerprint evidence from the window in Oginga's bedroom, Bryant's jewelry box, the door handle to her bedroom closet, and from other areas throughout the home. For the purpose of determining which fingerprints belonged to persons rightfully on the premises--and to eliminate them from the investigation--Det. Peters also obtained fingerprints from Bryant and her daughter Imani. Photographs of fingerprint evidence were sent to the State of Rhode Island Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island (crime lab) where they were analyzed by Edward Downing, Jr. (Downing), a fingerprint expert and fifteen-year veteran of the crime lab.

         Downing determined that four of the twenty images were clear enough to warrant greater attention. After concluding that certain fingerprints extracted from Oginga's bedroom window came from an unknown source, he searched a database known as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) to identify a potential match. From the three and a half million fingerprints contained in the database, Downing's search returned the name " Curtis M. Isom," born on January 4, 1959, as the closest potential match.[2] Downing then manually compared the left index fingerprint exemplar displayed on a fingerprint card attributed to " Curtis M. Isom" side-by-side with the photograph of the fingerprint from the window. By way of expert testimony, Downing opined that the exemplar and the latent fingerprint from the window originated from a common source. He also concluded that another latent fingerprint--a left thumbprint--extracted from Bryant's jewelry box matched another exemplar on the AFIS-generated fingerprint card ascribed to " Curtis M. Isom." [3]

         Johnston police detectives shared the results with Bryant and asked her if she knew a " Curtis Isom." Indeed, she did. A man with that name--defendant--is the father of Bryant's nephew, Marcus. The defendant also has the same date of birth as that listed on the fingerprint card: January 4, 1959.[4] Four months earlier, in December 2010, defendant and Marcus had visited Bryant's home. Although defendant had visited Bryant and her family in their previous apartment, it was the first time he had been to this particular residence. The visit lasted no more than fifteen minutes, during which defendant

Page 1214

remained in the foyer and in the living room. To Bryant's knowledge, defendant had not returned since.

         The defendant subsequently was charged with breaking and entering in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-8-2. Trial was held in the Providence County Superior Court on January 13 and 15, 2014. The state presented several witnesses, including Oginga, Bryant, Det. Peters, and Downing. Because Downing was the state's key witness and because defendant argues on appeal that the trial justice erred by restricting the scope of his cross-examination of Downing, we recount his testimony in some detail.

         During the state's direct examination of Downing, the fingerprint expert explained the methodology he employed when comparing known and latent prints.[5] Downing testified that his practice is to inspect the fingerprints initially for " basically similar shapes[ and] the general flow of [the] lines," and then focus on " the more minute details," such as " ending ridges, bifurcations, or small dots." He explained that ending ridges are noncontinuous lines within a fingerprint that break or end abruptly. Downing further described bifurcation on cross-examination as " one ridge that's running for a short time [and] then splits into two separate lines or two separate ridges."

         On cross-examination, defense counsel asked the fingerprint expert several questions about the general reliability of fingerprint identification and the procedures he employed in making his identification. Counsel then directed Downing's attention to an image of the fingerprint found on the jewelry box--specifically, a copy of the photograph on which Downing had based his identification. Downing testified that a mark within that fingerprint " appears to be a bifurcation or an ending ridge. You can't always tell which is which." The following exchange ensued:

" Q * * * [I]s it possible that in one [fingerprint] impression, * * * what appears as a bifurcation or ridge ending may actually be ...

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