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Cowels v. Federal Bureau of Investigation

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 26, 2019

MICHAEL COWELS and MICHAEL MIMS, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, CHRISTOPHER WRAY, and PAULA WULFF, Defendants, Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Richard G. Stearns, U.S. District Judge]

          Ezekiel L. Hill, with whom David J. Apfel, Kathleen McGuinness, and Goodwin Procter LLP were on brief, for appellant Michael Cowels.

          Elliot M. Weinstein on brief for appellant Michael Mims.

          Annapurna Balakrishna, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Andrew E. Lelling, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellees.

          Before Thompson, Lipez, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          LIPEZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Appellants Michael Cowels and Michael Mims were convicted of murder in state court and spent twenty years behind bars serving life sentences. After new testing of trial evidence cast doubt on the verdict, they were granted a new trial. Subsequent DNA testing of a swab taken from the inside of a condom recovered in the vicinity of the victim during the initial investigation revealed an unknown male DNA profile. Cowels and Mims obtained a state court order requiring Massachusetts to upload the DNA profile into a state database of DNA records for comparison purposes. No matches were found. The FBI, however, refused to upload the profile into the national DNA database after determining that it was ineligible for upload. Cowels and Mims went to federal court to compel the FBI to upload the profile, but the district court dismissed their suit based on its conclusion that the FBI's eligibility determination is unreviewable.

         Without suggesting that the district court erred in its analysis, we assume that the FBI's eligibility determination is reviewable. Having done so, we conclude that the determination was not arbitrary and capricious. We therefore affirm the dismissal of appellants' suit.

         I.

         A. Legal Background

         The DNA Identification Act of 1994 authorized the FBI Director to establish a DNA index, including DNA identification records of persons charged or convicted of crimes and "analyses of DNA samples recovered from crime scenes," 34 U.S.C. § 12592(a)(1)-(2), "to facilitate law enforcement exchange of DNA identification information," id. § 12592 (title). Pursuant to this authority, the FBI Director created the Combined DNA Index System ("CODIS"), which operates at the local, state, and national levels. The State DNA Index System ("SDIS") is managed by participating states, and the National DNA Index System ("NDIS"), which aggregates all the DNA records contained in the state databases, is managed by the FBI.[1] See generally Boroian v. Mueller, 616 F.3d 60, 63 (1st Cir. 2010) (describing CODIS).

         The DNA Identification Act itself lays out certain minimum standards for determining whether a DNA record may be uploaded to the CODIS system. For example, DNA records may only be uploaded if the underlying analysis was performed by an accredited laboratory in accordance with quality assurance standards established by the FBI. 34 U.S.C. § 12592(b)(1)-(2)(A)(i). The FBI's NDIS Operational Procedures Manual ("the Manual") provides additional guidelines for determining whether DNA records are eligible for inclusion in the NDIS. Of relevance to this appeal, pursuant to the Manual, a DNA record that "originate[s] from and/or [is] associated with a crime scene" is eligible for upload if it is "believed to be attributable to the putative perpetrator."[2]

         B. Factual Background

         In 1994, a Massachusetts jury convicted Cowels and Mims of murdering Belinda Miscioscia, who was found brutally stabbed to death behind a woodworking shop in a yard known as a location for sexual trysts. Among the evidence presented at trial were two bloody towels recovered from the home of a friend of Cowels and Mims, which bolstered the friend's testimony that Cowels and Mims came to his home the night of the murder, made incriminating statements, and cleaned up in his bathroom. Analysis of the only towel with a large enough amount of blood for testing neither identified nor excluded the men or the victim as sources. At trial, a state forensic scientist also testified about collecting "an older, wrinkled condom . . . covered with dirt and debris as well as sawdust" from the vicinity of the body. ...


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