Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Expert Witnesses Must Hand Over Written Reports at Least 21 Days before Testifying

When expert witnesses testify in criminal trials , they must stick to the information that was included in written reports shared with the opposing side 21 days in advance, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

Even though a Lucas County trial court did not abide by the rule, the Supreme Court majority wrote that the error by the lower court did not require a new trial. In doing so, the Court affirmed the conviction and life sentences that Ronald Boaston received for the 2014 murder of his ex-wife Brandi Gonyer-Boaston in Toledo.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated that the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure mandate the delivery of a written report about an expert witness’ expected testimony to the opposition. But in Boaston’s case, the trial court’s allowance of a deputy coroner’s testimony only added to the evidence and was not the key factor leading to his conviction.

Lucas County prosecutors provided a written autopsy report to Boaston’s defense attorney a year before Boaston’s trial. But the report did not include the opinions of the deputy coroner about key points – the time of Gonyer-Boaston’s death or that an abrasion on her chin was consistent with gloves recovered from Boaston after the murder. The deputy coroner had met with the defense attorney 19 days before trial and verbally informed the defense that she was going to offer those opinions at trial.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only, stating in a written opinion that the Supreme Court continues to use an inappropriate standard for determining when a trial court’s error is harmless.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in part, stating she agreed with the rule’s absolute requirement to provide a written report. She dissented in part, finding the error was not harmless and that the deputy coroner’s testimony carried significant weight and likely led to Boaston’s conviction.

Couple Connected after Divorce
After Gonyer-Boaston became pregnant with the first of two children she and Boaston had together, they married in 2005. The marriage ended in 2006, but the two reconciled and lived together with their two children and with three children from previous relationships.

In early 2014, all seven were living together in a Toledo condominium. Gonyer-Boaston worked as a nurse in a senior-care facility, and had developed a friendship with a co-worker. Boaston began installing spyware on Gonyer-Boaston’s cell phone and confronted her about a suspected romantic relationship with the co-worker.

Gonyer-Boaston said that Boaston then attempted to drown her in the bathtub and that she suffered two black eyes and a nose injury from it. She moved out of the condo and moved in with her mother. However, she returned to Boaston’s residence nearly every day to prepare the children for school and to help with homework.

Breakfast Sandwiches Consumed before Disappearance
Gonyer-Boaston detected Boaston tracking her calls and text messages and attempted to block him. But Boaston found new software to monitor his ex-wife’s communications without her knowledge.  Within two weeks after she moved out, Boaston argued with Gonyer-Boaston about her suggestive communications with the co-worker.

In mid-February 2014, Gonyer-Boaston finished a night shift at work and stopped at a fast-food restaurant, picking up two breakfast sandwiches around 7:20 a.m. Boaston later testified that he and his wife ate the sandwiches shortly after she arrived at his residence and helped the kids get ready for school.

The next day, hunters found Gonyer-Boaston’s vehicle with its engine running in a Fulton County field about 30 yards from the road. Her body was discovered in the rear cargo area of the SUV. She was partially dressed and wrapped in heavy plastic. Her damaged cell phone was nearby, and a receipt for the sandwiches was found inside the vehicle.

Crime Scene Evidence Collected
DNA tests from the crime scene included links to Boaston and his ex-wife, but no evidence that conclusively found her DNA on him, and none of his DNA was conclusively found to be on her body.

Dr. Diane Scala-Barnett, Lucas County forensic pathologist and deputy coroner, concluded that Gonyer-Boaston died by strangulation. By examining her stomach content, she estimated Gonyer-Boaston died within two hours of eating the breakfast sandwich.

Scala-Barnett also performed a side-by-side comparison of a glove collected from Boaston to an abrasion on his ex-wife’s chin. The deputy coroner did a “fit-test,” which indicated the buckle on the glove was consistent with the abrasion.

Conclusions Missing from Reports
Boaston was indicted on two counts of murder. During the course of discovery, prosecutors provided the written autopsy report to Boaston’s attorney more than a year before the trial. The report discussed the contents in Gonyer-Boaston’s stomach, but did not include Scala-Barnett’s opinion as to time of death based on the contents.

The state later handed over numerous photographs of Gonyer-Boaston’s body to the defense, including photos of the distinct abrasion. However, the coroner’s report did not mention that the fit test was conducted. Scala-Barnett met with Boaston’s attorneys 19 days before the trial and shared her opinions as to Gonyer-Boaston’s time of death and that the glove buckle was consistent with the abrasion on Gonyer-Boaston’s chin.

Boaston’s lawyer suggested the prosecutors supply a supplemental report with the opinions, but the state did not.

At the trial, Boaston’s attorney moved to exclude any of Scala-Barnett’s testimony about the time of death and the glove-buckle comparisons. Citing Crim.R. 16(K), he argued the deputy coroner failed to provide a written report summarizing her testimony 21 days prior to trial. The trial court overruled the request, and the deputy coroner presented her opinions to the jury .

After a six-day trial, the jury deliberated for three-and-a-half hours then found Boaston guilty on both counts. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison .

Boaston appealed his convictions and sentences to the Sixth District. The Sixth District affirmed the trial court. Boaston appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Examines Criminal Trial Rules
Justice Donnelly explained that Rule 16 governs the discovery process in criminal cases and, in 2010, the state made comprehensive changes to strengthen the rule to protect a defendant's constitutional rights to a fair trial.

Rule 16(K) states that expert witnesses must provide to all parties a written report regarding their findings and opinions at least 21 days before trial. A trial judge can modify the time period “for good cause shown” as long as it does not prejudice any party. Failure to disclose the written report “shall preclude the expert’s testimony at trial.”

Scala-Barnett’s report did not include her opinions, and her testimony at the trial went beyond the scope of the written report, the Supreme Court ruled. The deputy coroner did discuss the report with Boaston’s attorney, and the Court noted that producing a supplemental written report could have cured any noncompliance with the rule.

The Court stated the rule’s plain language prevented the deputy coroner from testifying about her opinions that were not included in the written report. The trial court was in error for allowing the opinion testimony, the Court ruled.

Error Ruled Harmless
When an error occurs at a criminal trial, an appeals court applies a “harmless-error” analysis to determine whether the error required reversal of the judgment , and a new trial is necessary, the opinion stated.

Ohio courts apply a harmless-error test that the Ohio Supreme Court established in its 2015 State v. Morris decision. The test requires a court to determine whether the error: had an impact on the verdict; whether the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; and if the evidence used in error were removed, would the remaining evidence still establish a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court found the time-of-death opinion was not essential to prosecution’s case, but helped confirm Boaston’s account that the two ate the sandwiches a few hours before his ex-wife left the condo. The opinion stated the glove-buckle testimony “did little more than connect dots that were all too readily apparent.”

Because the remaining evidence “overwhelmingly establishes Boaston’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt,” admission of the report did not affect the case outcome, the Court concluded.

Concurrence Questions Harmless-Error Test
In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that she agreed with the majority’s conclusion that courts must strictly follow the 21-day written-report rule and that, in Boaston’s case, the error was harmless.

She noted that she had dissented from the Morris decision and believed that Ohio now applies a too-stringent standard for reviewing evidentiary errors committed by trial courts in criminal cases. She advocated that the Court follow the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1946 Kotteakos v. United States decision, which holds that nonconstitutional error is harmless if the outcome was not substantially swayed by the error.

However, Justice Kennedy wrote that she is bound by the Court’s precedent,, and under the Morris test or the Kotteakos test the result would be the same, because there was “no indication that the jury was substantially swayed by the erroneously admitted evidence in a way that affected the outcome of Boaston’s trial.”

Concurrence/Dissent Found Opinion Was Critical to State’s Case
Justice Stewart noted the prosecutors fought to have Scala-Barnett’s testimony admitted at trial and cited it in closing arguments. She noted that the deputy coroner is a medical doctor with more than 30 years of experience, and it was reasonable for a jury to assign great weight to her testimony.

The opinion noted that the state had little physical evidence tying Boaston to the murder and the remaining evidence “does not establish Boaston’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Justice Stewart wrote that the deputy coroner’s testimony was highly incriminating and likely overshadowed the remaining evidence. She would remand the case for a new trial.

2018-0364. State v. Boaston, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1061.

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