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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Hebshie - 754 F. Supp. 2d 89 (D. Mass. 2010)


As stated in Daubert, documentation is necessary to test a hypothesis; in fact, reproducibility is the sine qua non of "science." A key question to be answered in determining whether a theory or technique is scientific knowledge is whether it can be (and has been) tested. Scientific methodology today is based on generating hypotheses and testing them to see if they can be falsified; indeed, this methodology is what distinguishes science from other fields of human inquiry. 


Petitioner James Hebshie was convicted of arson and mail fraud in June 2006 for an April 2001 fire in a commercial building in Taunton, Massachusetts. At the time of the fire, Hebshie was leasing space in the building for his convenience store, Main Street Lottery & News Store. He was sentenced to a mandatory 15 years in prison, all the while proclaiming his innocence. After exhausting his appeals, Hebshie filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 based on the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. His petition raises a number of grounds but its principal focus is the way counsel dealt with scientific testimony on arson.


Did Hebshie’s trial counsel provide ineffective assistance?




The Court found that despite ample reasons for defense counsel to be on notice of serious problems with the government's expert evidence, they did not request a Daubert hearing as to anything. The Court reasoned that defense counsel knew that the investigation of a basement was inadequate, or at least, not fully documented. They also knew or should have known that the canine evidence was supposed to be admitted for only a limited purpose, namely, assisting in the selection of samples that have a higher probability of laboratory confirmation than samples selected without the canine's assistance, and that testimony beyond those purposes was potentially prejudicial. The Court found that contesting the reliability of this evidence in a Daubert hearing was plainly within the prevailing professional norms. The Court also found that the exclusion of the laboratory analysis and the limitation of the canine evidence would surely be enough to undermine confidence in the verdict. The Court reasoned that without the laboratory test or the canine evidence, there was no other direct evidence of arson. The Court granted Hebshie’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

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