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Name: Rossum v. Patrick
Case #: 09-55666
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 09/23/2010

Defense counsel provided deficient representation for failing to investigate the possibility of contamination of autopsy samples. Petitioner worked in the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office and was having an affair with a co-worker. She was convicted of the murder of her husband based on poisoning him with an opiate, fentanyl. But the amount of poison discovered in the autopsy samples was so high that it was nearly impossible for the decedent to have lived for several hours after poisoning, as was the case. This raised the possibility that someone could have contaminated the autopsy samples, which were left unguarded in the lab for a day and a half. Petitioner alleged trial counsel failed to properly investigate by testing the samples because such a test would determine if the poison was in the victim’s system or planted on the sample post-mortem. She provided the declaration of an expert confirming that the if the contamination levels were as high as the autopsy results suggested, the victim would have died withing minutes, not lingered for hours as the evidence showed. The Ninth Circuit agreed that, given the lapse in chain of custody and the evidence presented regarding the timing of the death, a competent attorney would not have conceded the cause of death without testing the autopsy samples. However, because the prejudice analysis in this claim depends on the whether the autopsy samples are contaminated, the court remanded for an evidentiary hearing.