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Five years after the death of Brianna Blackmond changed the face of Washington’s judicial system, the woman convicted of murdering the 23-month-old toddler was back in court fighting for a new trial. Blackmond died in January 2000, just two weeks after she was removed from foster care and returned to her mother. Her bruised and battered body was found by paramedics who responded to a 911 call from a row house in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. The next year, Angela O’Brien, the child’s godmother, was tried and found guilty by a D.C. Superior Court jury of beating Blackmond to death. Blackmond’s death sent shock waves through the city and grabbed the attention of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), leading to major changes in Washington’s child welfare system and the creation of a Family Court within the Superior Court. Last week, O’Brien’s attorney Allie Sheffield told a three-judge panel on the D.C. Court of Appeals that her client never received a fair trial. Sheffield argued that one of the government’s expert witnesses, Saami Shaibani, lied about his affiliations with Temple University and about his experience working with trauma victims. She said that when defense lawyers raised the issue with trial Judge Lee Satterfield — who would later become the first presiding judge of Family Court — he refused their request to have Temple officials testify about Shaibani’s credentials. O’Brien, who is serving a sentence of 19 years to life, filed her new-trial motion in October 2003, just days after a North Carolina judge in another high-profile murder case found that Shaibani committed perjury by lying on the witness stand about his affiliation with Temple. Satterfield denied the motion last year. On June 15 the D.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on that motion as well as on O’Brien’s direct appeal, which raised a host of other challenges. During the hourlong argument Judges Michael Farrell and Vanessa Ruiz and Senior Judge John Terry seemed receptive to Sheffield’s claim that defense lawyers should have been allowed to offer testimony that impeached Shaibani’s credibility. “You think that if a jury heard this they wouldn’t think he is kind of making this up?” Ruiz asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Schertler, who argued the case on behalf of the government. “Those witnesses could have been able to cast doubt.” But Schertler argued that Shaibani’s testimony about his qualifications has never been contradicted and even if the court finds that he did lie about his r�sum�, Shaibani’s testimony was not crucial to the government’s case. “It was clear as a bell that this testimony just wasn’t important,” Schertler said. “Shaibani’s testimony was helpful to the government, but by no means is it the critical testimony.” BRIANNA’S DEATH It was just before Christmas in 1999 when Brianna Blackmond and her sister were taken from their foster family and returned to their mother, Charrisise. The children had earlier been removed from their mother’s care after social workers found them living in filth and eating out of trash cans. At the time, Charrisise, who had six other children, was living with her youngest child and O’Brien in a Northwest Washington row house. According to prosecutors, Blackmond was routinely beaten by O’Brien. The 911 call for help came just 13 days after Blackmond moved into O’Brien’s home. She died the next day at Children’s Hospital. During O’Brien’s monthlong trial, prosecutors alleged that Blackmond died after O’Brien repeatedly slammed her head against the floor because Blackmond would not sit still long enough to get her hair braided, according to court papers. The official cause of death, court papers state, was a brain hemorrhage. To help make its case against O’Brien, the government called Jonathan Arden, who at that time was the chief medical examiner in the District, and Shaibani, a physicist who claimed to be an expert in injury mechanism analysis. Both men testified that Blackmond’s death resulted from her head striking a hard surface. O’Brien’s defense attorneys argued that Blackmond’s death was an accident caused by the toddler falling down a set of stairs. They pointed out that four children — three of them O’Brien’s — who were in the house the day Blackmond was hurt originally told investigators that she had fallen, but they later changed their story and testified at trial that Brianna died after O’Brien “slammed” her head into the floor. The defense called their own expert, who testified that the injury could have been caused from a fall. While Arden admitted under cross-examination that there was a “minute” possibility that Brianna’s injuries could have come from falling down the stairs, the government called Shaibani to rebut the claim. Shaibani said that in his expert opinion it was “impossible.” At trial, Shaibani testified he was an associate clinical professor of physics at Temple University and that through his work with Temple he had extensive experience working with trauma injuries. Before Shaibani was called to the stand, defense attorneys sought to introduce letters and testimony from Temple officials who said that Shaibani was not affiliated with the university. Satterfield gave the government one evening to investigate the claims. When prosecutors said that Shaibani reassured them his qualifications were legitimate, Satterfield refused the defense’s request to have Temple officials testify. When defense attorneys cross-examined Shaibani about his affiliation, he testified that in 1998, at the conclusion of an initial three-year appointment as an associate clinical professor, his appointment was orally extended. But he said he did not know the name of the person who authorized the extension. To buttress his claim, Shaibani produced copies of letters he wrote to Temple after 1998, in which he referred to his position and sought to update the chair of the physics department about his activities. He never received a response to his letters. After deliberating for three days, the jury convicted O’Brien of second-degree murder, cruelty to children, assault, and obstruction of justice. In her motion for a new trial, Sheffield claimed that Shaibani had lied when he said his appointment with Temple had been orally extended and that the government should have investigated Shaibani’s background further before he was allowed to testify. More important, she says, had the jury members been made aware of Shaibani’s r�sum� padding, they would not have credited his testimony or they would have given more weight to the defense’s expert. Sheffield based her claims on two other high-profile murder cases in which Shaibani’s affiliations with Temple were called into question. In 2003 a North Carolina judge found that Shaibani had committed perjury in the murder case against author Michael Peterson. And in 2004 a South Dakota judge ordered a hearing into the validity of Shaibani’s claims. At a hearing in the South Dakota case an official from Temple testified that Shaibani had a courtesy appointment with the university from 1995 to 1998 but that she could not find any documentation to support his claim that he was reappointed. In addition, she said that Temple rules require that any appointment be made in writing, so it was the university’s position that Shaibani was not affiliated with Temple. Satterfield denied Sheffield’s new-trial motion in March 2005. In a 13-page opinion he wrote, “Finally and most importantly, even if Dr. Shaibani did testify falsely and the prosecution knew or should have known of this falsity, there is no reasonable likelihood that his false testimony affected the verdict considering the overwhelming independent evidence presented by the government.” ON APPEAL As Sheffield began her oral argument before the appeals panel she appeared visibly nervous and was immediately interrupted by Farrell, who asked about the unnamed person who allegedly authorized Shaibani’s appointment. Throughout their questions, all three judges seemed skeptical of Shaibani’s claim that he had an oral agreement to continue his appointment. Sheffield told the appeals court that Satterfield’s rulings during the trial made it impossible for defense attorneys to fully impeach Shaibani’s credibility for the jury. “There is evidence in existence that the defense wanted to introduce, was ready to introduce [evidence] from an uninvolved source that contradicted Shaibani’s claims,” Sheffield said. But even as the judges seemed responsive to Sheffield’s argument, Judge Terry recalled another infamous expert witness who lied about his credentials: former D.C. police officer Johnny St. Valentine Brown, who testified in thousands of drug cases before it was discovered he did not have the college degrees he claimed. “In none of those cases,” Terry said, “has a conviction been reversed because of his outright lies about his r�sum�.” And it may be that O’Brien’s case could ultimately turn on an issue unrelated to the new-trial motion. One issue that Sheffield raised in her direct appeal was that the jury should have been permitted to take into account O’Brien’s mental retardation when considering some of the charges. In Washington, mental illness can be raised as part of an insanity defense, but there is no distinction made between mental illness and mental retardation. Ruiz and Farrell seemed especially responsive to the idea that mental retardation is a separate issue from mental illness and could be raised as a defense. “If that is not available to a person who only shows signs of retardation, what is it worth as a defense?” Farrell asked.
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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