On December 12, 2013, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed a conviction in the case of Lowe v. State. The criminal defendant allegedly had downloaded pornographic pictures of children under the age of 18 onto his laptop computer.
Lowe, who worked at a Masonite Corporation plant, argued multiple times that he could not afford to adequately fund his defense against charges that, “on June 6, 2009 [he] downloaded sexually explicit images or videos of children under the age of 18 via the internet to his laptop computer.” The court designated Lowe “indigent” and appointed defense counsel.
No witnesses saw Lowe download illicit material. A woman named Marie Taylor, who had lived with Lowe, testified that Lowe allowed her and daughters to access his computer. According to her, he had never downloaded pornography.
The State only had an expert computer forensic witness -- Tom Thomas -- who testified that the “digital fingerprint” of the pornography indicted Lowe. For instance, pornographic files had been saved under Lowe’s username and password.
Lowe repeatedly asked the court for funds to hire an independent computer expert to challenge the State expert’s case. The trial court – and then later the Court of Appeals – rejected Lowe’s defense, claiming that his counsel should have been able to question the State’s expert witness. This line of thinking – as the Supreme Court later pointed out – didn't make much sense. How can you question a technical expert witness, if you don’t have a technical expert on your side to help you understand the process or ask the right questions? Was Lowe’s attorney simply supposed to ask Mr. Thomas: “What technical questions should I ask you to demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re talking about and that you’re wrong?”
In overturning the conviction and remanding case back for another trial, the Supreme Court cited case of Ake v. Oklahoma, saying that “The determination of whether an indigent defendant must be provided expert funding is made on a case-by-case basis, and defendant must demonstrate a substantial need in order to justify the trial court expending public funds for an expert to assist the defense.”
The Supreme Court said that Lowe did, indeed, have a substantial need for an outside independent computer expert. Such a witness would constitute “a basic tool of an adequate defense” in this case. As the Supreme Court put it: the “probable value of an independent defense expert must weigh heavily in favor of a substantial need for a state-funded independent expert. And, as in Ake, both the State and the defendant have interest in an accurate resolution … the State’s interest in avoiding the cost for providing an independent expert cannot overcome [the need for an accurate resolution of the case].”
The court also ordered that the trial judge give the defendant “funds to obtain an expert in computer forensics.”
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