Jim Dey | 'Expert' witness assistance not all it's cracked up to be

Jim Dey | 'Expert' witness assistance not all it's cracked up to be

What happens when an expert witness proves not to be an expert at all and opines about key issues in a murder case that are beyond his areas of expertise?

For starters, the hapless wretch against whom the expert is testifying is convicted and sentenced to prison. Ultimately, however, the conviction is — or at least, in the case of People vs. King, was — overturned, and the case sent back for a retrial.

At least that's how a three-judge panel from the state's 2nd District Appellate Court saw it. In a recent decision, it unanimously concluded that former FBI agent and criminal profiler Mark Safarik should have kept many of his thoughts to himself when he testified against a husband, Shadwick King, charged with the 2014 murder of his wife, Kathleen.

More importantly, the appeals court found, Kane County prosecutors shouldn't have solicited Safarik's testimony on certain issues, and trial Judge James Hallock shouldn't have permitted him to answer.

The case is instructive because it outlines how expert testimony can — and cannot — be used in criminal cases that involve issues beyond most jurors' understanding.

But first, here's the background.

Shadwick King and his wife were having marital trouble stemming from an extramarital affair she was having.

In the early morning of July 6, 2014, Mrs. King's lifeless body was discovered on a railroad track near Geneva Station, about 1,200 to 1,300 feet from the Kings' residence.

She was dressed as if she had been jogging, an image consistent with her husband's statement that she had gone out for a run to clear her head after they had an argument.

Based on all the circumstances, police didn't buy his story, and for good reason. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Even though the situation initially looked dire for King — more on that later — he offered a surprisingly strong defense. The prosecution said Shadwick King strangled his wife, but the defense maintained she died of natural causes, suffering a heart attack while out for a run.

The case presented a classic "battle of the experts."

Forensic pathologist Dr. Mitra Kalelkar testified that Mrs. King died from "asphyxiation" based on hemorrhages in her eyes and at the base of her tongue that indicated strangulation. She also testified that bruises found on Mrs. King's arm, throat and chin were inconsistent with falling on the railroad track and consistent with being choked.

Dr. Larry Blum, another forensic pathologist, disputed Dr. Kalelkar's testimony. He concluded that Mrs. King "died of a cardiac event brought on by stress, alcohol intoxication, lack of sleep and caffeine consumption."

Her blood alcohol level was found to be 0.26, more than three times the legal driving limit.

Testimony indicated that the Kings spent the evening and early-morning hours before her death drinking large quantities of alcoholic beverages.

What's a jury to do when experts disagree? They're charged with evaluating the credibility of the witnesses' testimony in the context of their experiences in life as well as the other evidence in the case.

That's where Safarik, the expert, came into the case.

Profiling testimony is not considered to be sufficiently reliable to be admitted into evidence. So Safarik was called to share his "specialized knowledge" of how murders are committed with the jury, specifically the manner in which Mrs. King's body was found.

The prosecution argued that Mrs. King was strangled at home and that her husband placed her body on the railroad tracks to suggest she died of natural causes while out for a run.

But Safarik did more than explain an allegedly staged crime scene.

Among other things, he told jurors the victim "died as a result of manual strangulation," that "strangers do not stage crime scenes" and that "a staged crime scene indicates that the killer was someone close to the victim."

"... Safarik's opinions ranged from forensic pathology, to botany, to the sartorial," wrote appellate Justice Kathryn Zenoff. "Under the guise of expert 'crime scene analysis,' Safarik basically offered his subjective evidence that the state's evidence was sufficient to convict defendant."

The appellate court was dismayed by a variety of Safarik's statements, but especially by his statement as to cause of death.

"We hold Safarik's opinion as to the cause of death was so highly prejudicial that we must reverse (King's) conviction," Zenoff wrote, explaining that Safarik "was not qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education to opine on the cause and manner of (Mrs. King's) death."

The prosecution conceded the error of allowing Safarik's testimony to be admitted into evidence, but contended it was "harmless." The appellate court wasn't buying that either, describing the evidence against Mr. King as "not overwhelming."

"There was no eyewitness, no confession and no forensic evidence connecting defendant to the crime," Zenoff wrote.

There is, however, plenty of evidence to suggest that Mrs. King's body was hurriedly dressed in a jogging outfit and found in an area where she did not routinely run. She left her contacts, earbuds and armband at home, and several articles of clothing, including a "sock with a heel twisted to the top of her foot," gave the appearance of being hurriedly put on by someone else.

Then again, the defense can be expected to point out that Mrs. King, being intoxicated, may well have prepared for her run in a slipshod manner.

That will be up to the jury to decide. The prosecution intends to appeal the appellate court's ruling setting aside Shadwick King's conviction and 30-year sentence. But this case has all the appearances of one that will be presented again to Kane County jurors without the benefit of the expert witnesses' inexpert musings.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.