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The death of Brianna Blackmond, the 23-month-old girl allegedly beaten to death by her godmother in January 2000, continues to be a cause of controversy for the D.C. criminal justice system. Last week, a lawyer representing Angela O’Brien, who is serving a sentence of 19 years to life for murdering Brianna, filed a motion asking for her conviction to be thrown out, alleging that prosecutors allowed an expert witness to testify even though there were questions raised about his qualifications. That same witness was found last month to have perjured himself in a high-profile murder case in North Carolina. O’Brien was convicted by a D.C. Superior Court jury in October 2001 of second-degree murder, child abuse, simple assault, and obstruction of justice after a month-long trial in which the mother of five was accused of slamming Brianna to the ground several times, causing fatal head injuries to the little girl. Defense attorneys claimed at trial that Brianna had accidentally fallen down a steep staircase. The Oct. 10 motion is based on recent developments in the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a novelist accused of bludgeoning his wife to death with a fireplace poker and then telling police she had accidentally fallen down the stairs. On Sept. 26, a North Carolina judge determined that the district attorney’s expert — Saami Shaibani — committed perjury for lying on the witness stand about being affiliated with Temple University. (Late last week, Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder and was automatically sentenced to life without parole.) In the D.C. case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Oscar Mayers Jr. and Peter Taylor used Shaibani, who says he is a physics and trauma expert, to attack O’Brien’s defense that Brianna’s injuries were sustained from accidentally falling down a flight of stairs. O’Brien’s attorneys say prosecutors failed to check Shaibani out before vouching for his expertise and that they allowed him to testify even after defense lawyers raised concerns about his Temple affiliation. In addition, they claim that Judge Lee Satterfield, the trial judge and current head of the D.C. Family Court, prevented the defense team from introducing evidence at trial that the witness had lied. “This isn’t just an expert issue,” says D.C. criminal defense lawyer Joanne Slaight, one of O’Brien’s trial lawyers. “This is a fraud on the court issue — a perjury issue.” The new trial motion was filed by D.C. criminal defense lawyer Allie Sheffield, who is also handling O’Brien’s appeal. Allegations about the credentials of government witnesses evoke memories of Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., one of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s favorite D.C. narcotics “experts.” Brown testified as an expert in thousands of cases over a 16-year period until a lawyer checked out Brown’s credentials in 1999 and found out that the D.C. police detective had lied about much of his education and experience. It is unclear how many times Shaibani was used by prosecutors in the District. He testified in at least one other baby homicide case prosecuted by Mayers in 2001. In that matter, the defendant was acquitted. Shaibani did not respond to telephone messages and an e-mail request for comment. Mayers referred calls to Channing Phillips, chief of staff to U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr. Phillips declines to say how the office came into contact with Shaibani, how often he was used, or how the government will respond to the current motion. “We can’t comment on anything until we know what the issues are,” says Phillips, noting it was the first time he had heard of any allegations regarding Shaibani. Taylor, now counsel at D.C.’s Schmeltzer, Aptaker & Shepard, declined comment through Phillips. Judge Satterfield declines comment. Whether these allegations will affect O’Brien’s conviction will likely depend on how important Shaibani’s testimony was to the government’s case. Defense lawyers point out that prosecutors not only used Shaibani in the case in chief, but also had him return to rebut testimony from the defense’s pathologist. But if the fallout from the Brown debacle is any indication, O’Brien’s defense attorneys have a difficult road ahead. Out of about 50 challenges brought in the wake of the Brown scandal, only a tiny handful of convictions were overturned. Sheffield says the Shaibani situation differs from the Brown cases because in the O’Brien case the government was alerted to problems with Shaibani’s qualifications prior to his testimony. Either way, a potential prosecutorial foul-up in one of the city’s most high-profile homicides becomes another embarrassing layer in the Brianna case. A CHILD’S DEATH Brianna Blackmond died on Jan. 6, 2000 — 13 days after D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn Queen ordered that the child be taken out of foster care and returned to her mother, Charrisise. At the time of her death, Brianna was living in a Northwest D.C. row house rented by O’Brien. According to prosecutors, O’Brien and Charrisise Blackmond repeatedly beat Brianna. On Jan. 5, O’Brien allegedly slammed Brianna’s head on the floor three times and the little girl died the next morning at Children’s Hospital. Brianna’s death exposed a series of problems within the District’s child welfare system and grabbed the attention of Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas), who held hearings on the matter and began a push for creation of a family court. Queen resigned and a D.C. judicial oversight panel ruled she could not return to the bench. Prosecutors charged O’Brien with first-degree murder and other lesser charges. Charrisise Blackmond, who had eight other children, was charged with first-degree child abuse, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Four children — three of them O’Brien’s — were in the home at the time Brianna was injured. Three of them initially told investigators that Brianna had fallen down a steep stairwell. All three would later change their stories and say O’Brien “slammed” Brianna. O’Brien’s lawyers, Slaight and June Perrone, stuck with a single defense: Brianna had accidentally fallen down a 16-step staircase. The summer before the trial, Slaight learned that the government was planning on calling a physics expert to attack their theory. Saami Shaibani was going to testify that it was not physically possible for Brianna to have received such serious head injuries by falling down the stairs. Shaibani, a London native who lives in Lynchburg, Va., claims to have four degrees from Oxford University and that he makes a living as a clinical professor associated with Temple University. Shaibani has testified that he travels the country to teach various physics courses at universities and seminars. Slaight, three months before the O’Brien trial, began investigating Shaibani and watched him testify for the government in a similar child murder trial in D.C. Superior Court. Then just days before the trial, Slaight received two letters from Temple University — one written by the chair of the physics department, the other from the university counsel’s office. Both stated that Shaibani had no affiliation with Temple University. “Any claim by Mr. Shaibani that he is now a member of, or even affiliated with, the Temple University Department of Physics is fraudulent,” department chair Edward Gawlinski wrote in a Sept. 27 letter. “[A]t least once a year I have to write this sort of letter when Mr. Shaibani again tries to establish his bona fides as an expert witness by claiming he is a member of the Physics Department.” The day before Shaibani was scheduled to testify, Slaight brought the letters to Satterfield’s attention, according to a court transcript. AUSA Taylor asked for some time to talk to Shaibani about the letters. The next morning, Taylor told the judge that Shaibani checked out and that the government would allow him to testify. “I guess, you know, this business he perjured himself about,” Taylor told the court, according to a transcript. “I wanted to make a record. I don’t think that’s true. I think he has the affiliations he said.” Taylor said Shaibani possessed a notarized letter showing that he was appointed “Clinical Associate Professor” in Temple’s physics department beginning Sept. 1, 1995, and ending Aug. 31, 1998. Beyond that, Taylor told the court, Shaibani claimed to have an oral agreement with Temple that allowed him to continue using the university’s name in his business. Taylor, however, told Judge Satterfield that Shaibani said he couldn’t remember the name of the person who agreed to the affiliation. Satterfield denied Slaight’s request that Shaibani be barred from testifying, qualified him as an expert on “injury mechanisms analysis,” and said he would not admit the letter into evidence, labeling it hearsay. Slaight then requested that she be allowed to have Temple officials testify regarding Shaibani. Satterfield denied that request as well. The judge also shut down Slaight’s cross-examination of Shaibani when she continued to question him about the Temple affiliation. Slaight called her own pathologist who claimed that Brianna’s injuries could have occurred from an accidental fall. Shaibani, according to Slaight, was allowed to sit in during that testimony and was again called to the stand by the government to rebut the defense expert. The government was also allowed to show the jury unsigned letters Shaibani allegedly wrote to Temple officials about his work for them. Defense lawyers say there was no proof those letters were ever sent or received. On Oct. 29, 2001, O’Brien was found guilty of second-degree murder and other child abuse and assault charges. Charles Cerf, who served on the jury on the O’Brien case, said in an interview last week that Shaibani “effectively demolished the defense theory” that Brianna died from falling down the stairs. “Nobody in the jury room, I think it’s safe to say, believed the defense theory,” Cerf said. “The only question was whether the prosecution’s theory was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. “The only theory any of us could think of that would have exonerated Angela O’Brien was that somebody else had done it,” added Cerf. TROUBLE IN NORTH CAROLINA Last month, Shaibani was called by district attorneys in North Carolina who were looking to knock down Peterson’s defense that his wife had accidentally fallen down the stairs of their home and died. At trial, defense lawyers questioned Shaibani’s credentials — using the letters produced in the O’Brien case. Defense lawyer David Rudolf waited until it was time to cross-examine Shaibani before revealing his hand. North Carolina Judge Orlando Hudson allowed Rudolf to use the Temple letters from the D.C. case to question Shaibani. Rudolf also produced a Sept. 25, 2003, letter from Temple Associate University Counsel Virginia Flick, who stated, “Any current representation that Mr. Shaibani is employed by or affiliated with Temple University is simply untrue.” Judge Hudson found that Shaibani committed perjury and struck his testimony from the record.

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