Court Tosses Cara Rintala's Conviction Over Bad Expert
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First Reported Spousal Murder Case Involving Lesbian Couple Upended Yet Again as High Court Overturns Conviction After Third Trial

Cara Rintala appears in court in 2016

Cara Rintala has been tried for the murder of her wife on three separate occasions. None of those trials will be the final word.

On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the defendant’s 2016 murder conviction over the 2010 death-by-strangulation of 37-year-old Annamarie Cochrane-Rintala. The case garnered national attention as the first conviction of a woman for the murder of her lawful wife, according to the TV station WWLP.

In their 47-page opinion and order, The Bay State’s highest court found that government prosecutors prejudicially relied on an alleged expert witness who should not have been allowed to testify.

The dead woman was found at the bottom of a bloody basement staircase on March 29, 2010. First responders and then police found her lifeless body, the floor and the defendant covered in white paint.

To hear the prosecution tell it, Rintala doctored the crime scene in order to–perhaps literally–cover her tracks and make Cochrane-Rintala’s death all the more difficult to adequately investigate.

To that end, Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl and her team called to the stand David Guilianelli, whom the court described as “a quality engineer at the company that manufactured the paint found at the crime scene” to opine about several paint-related issues. During his testimony, he told jurors, in the court’s words that “the paint found at the crime scene was poured deliberately and not spilled and that the paint was poured no more than four hours before photographs were taken of the crime scene just after 9 p.m.”

The first two times, Rintala escaped conviction via hung juries. The third time, and the first time with the state relying on their paint expert, the defendant was convicted. The high court therefore reasoned that Guilianelli’s erroneous testimony was integral to the eventual guilty verdict and tossed the conviction–setting the stage for a potential fourth murder trial sometime in the near future.

Specifically, the court ruled, “admission of expert testimony as to the timing and manner of application of paint in the basement was error.”

The court reasoned that Guilianelli’s testimony was erroneous because, to the extent it was based on anything more than his own subjective opinion, said testimony relied on a series of experiments that were not conducted in line with the scientific method.

In those experiments, six total, the would-be expert witness compared various paint drying times on standard paint industry charts under various spatial, temperature and humidity conditions.

“Guilianelli testified that he had never done an experiment like this before, nor had anyone in his company,” the court noted. “He had never testified about paint drying in any court proceeding and was not aware of any other instance of such testimony. He also did not do any research on the topic or search for any academic or industry materials on this topic. Rather than flowing naturally from his work, therefore, his experiments greatly differed from the work he ordinarily performed and the observations he had experience making, and his opinions were developed solely to assist the Commonwealth’s prosecution of the defendant.”

Fatally for the state, the court opined, none of those experiments were conducted in line with any “existing scientific literature or research,” were not “performed consistently with basic scientific principles,” and none of Guilianelli’s experiments were repeated.

“Guilianelli’s experiments also did not take into account the surface upon which the paint was found, a dead body and concrete, as opposed to a sealed chart,” the court noted. “He also did not account and control for the disturbances in the paint caused by the defendant and first responders. To the extent he considered temperature and humidity, he was dependent on the accuracy of the readings at the crime scene, which were not verified.”

Without technically addressing the issue in legal terms–though Rintala did raise the issue on appeal–the court also savaged Guilianelli’s basic competence to give expert testimony during the trial whatsoever in a footnote taking up almost an entire page:

The precise question is whether Guilianelli possessed “sufficient ‘education, training, experience and familiarity'” to determine forensically when and how the paint was applied to the basement floor and the victim’s body based on the information he was provided. At the time of trial, Guilianelli had worked in the paint industry as a chemist for twenty years, developing and testing new paints for their ordinary uses. There is a significant distinction, however, between what Guilianelli had done in the paint industry for over twenty years and what the Commonwealth asked him to do in this case. What testing Guilianelli had done appears to be at very low thicknesses on sealed surfaces. There is nothing in the record to suggest that he had the education, training, or experience to develop experiments to test paint in other vastly different circumstances. Designing paints and observing what happens when they dry at three one-thousandths of an inch on a sealed chart is an entirely different exercise from forensically analyzing the drying patterns of large pools of paint found below and on top of a dead person and spread about a concrete floor. Guilianelli testified that he had never done an experiment like this before, nor had anyone in his company. He had never testified about paint drying in any court proceeding and was not aware of any other instance of such testimony. He also did not do any research on the topic or search for any academic or industry materials on this topic. That Guilianelli had worked in the paint industry for twenty years and was involved with the design and production of the paint at issue here does not mean that he was qualified as an expert witness on any topic related to paint.

“We agree that Guilianelli lacked the necessary expertise to perform the paint analysis here and that his testimony lacked the requisite reliability and therefore should not have been admitted,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote. “Moreover, because Guilianelli’s testimony was significant and likely swayed the jury’s verdict, we conclude that the error was prejudicial, and we therefore vacate the judgment against the defendant.”

According to MassLive, the state intends to seek a fourth trial while the defense intends to seek Rintala’s release on bail as soon as possible. The defendant previously was released on $150,000 bail between her second and third trials.

[image via screengrab/WWLP]

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