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Expert Witness

One has to realise that one's playing to lawyers and playing to juries:
this isn't pure science; this is theatre as well

Waney Squier (UK)

  More quotes on Expert Witness
One of the roles of the pathologist is to give evidence and provide expert opinion in trials and coroners’ inquests.  Sebastian Lucas goes to “lots of inquests, and it's an absolute golden rule -- and I make sure trainees know this -- that when an inquest is over you go and shake hands with the relatives, and you say you're sorry that X has died...  They usually say ‘Thank you for what you did’, because I try and do a very good job.  Sometimes they are not so happy, but you just have to grit your teeth.” 

Intensely complicated pathology has to be translated into ‘did this person do it or not?Lucas gives an example of where the relatives wanted to sue the authorities for negligence, but the evidence did not support this position: it was clearly a death from natural causes.

Waney Squier talks at length about being an expert witness in court, and the different forces that come into play.  She describes her own experience of being subjected to character assassination, explaining that one lawyer’s tactic was “to get the jury to believe that whatever I said was not to be taken seriously”. 

She highlights how the adversarial nature of court cases makes it “very easy to be pushed from the middle ground into taking a stance.  And one has to guard against that the whole time.”  She points out too that the jury’s impressions can be critical: “One has to realise that one's playing to lawyers and playing to juries:  this isn't pure science; this is theatre as well.”

Another key issue is the fact that what’s at question is “intensely complicated, detailed pathology”, which is hard enough for the professionals to understand, but which often “has to be translated into ‘did this person do it or not?’ ” Despite the frustrations of court, Squier finds it stimulating work and says that it has highlighted the vital importance of clarity in how material is presented, so as to minimise any possibility of misinterpretation by non-specialists. 

Squier has become involved in the controversial area of shaken baby syndrome, and says: “I know that it’s important that somebody asks the questions, otherwise there are going to be dreadful miscarriages of justice.”

Leaving out the emotional language is a very important part of being the expertDerrick Pounder and Sue Black also have interesting things to say about their role in international human rights cases, and endorse Squier’s point about the importance of presenting evidence that can stand up to the most intense scrutiny. Their stories reveal how crucial it is to rise above any emotional or political engagement with the situation, even in the most heartbreaking cases. “Leaving out the emotional language is a very important part of being the expert,” says Pounder.

Sue Black relates one particular story where she helped an old man in Kosovo who had lost  11 members of his family in a bomb blast.  Her task was to separate and identify individual body parts.  “It mattered to him, but it also matters to the courts... if what's in that body bag doesn't equate to the named missing person you've said it is, then you're not a credible witness, and every bit of evidence you've recovered can be discounted.  You can't afford to do that.”

Both Sue Black and Bill Bass not only appear in court and work closely with the police, but they train the police and others involved in disaster response.

Key interviewees: 
Waney Squier, Sue Black, Sebastian Lucas, Derrick Pounder, Bill Bass

 

QUOTES

Derrick PounderAt the beginning yes, it was difficult [to take on human rights cases], because it was seen as highly political, highly contentious.  Even if you were based in a country which was relatively sympathetic to the concept of human rights, there was still a feeling that it was a little beyond the pale for a professional person, who was after all mainly serving the criminal justice system, to be involved in something potentially so sensitive.
 - Derrick Pounder (UK)

I've learnt over the years that if you want to be an advocate, you must be an advocate, but you can't pretend that you are, at the same time, an objective scientific expert... So I play different roles at different times. I was a founder member and past chairman of Physicians for Human Rights in the UK. There I was an advocate. But if I go as an expert with a professional group...then there I'm objective, I'm a scientist. Advocates have to inject a bit of passion into what they do; it's part of the way you must present things. As a scientist you have to leave out a lot of that passion in order to ensure that people look to the facts of what you're saying, and appreciate that your application of the logic to those facts justifies your conclusion, and that it's not clouded by emotion. 
 - Derrick Pounder (UK)

Waney SquierIt's a whole new game, to try and go in and give unbiased information without taking sides. And of course your legal team – the people you're there with, the people who instruct you, the people who are sitting by you in court -- are there to win.  So you're with a team who want you on board… I mean, even to say you're with a team is perhaps wrong as well. You're supposed to be there as an independent witness to the court, but you're automatically on one side or the other. So it's quite tough.
 -
Waney Squier (UK)

Sebastian LucasMy motivation in what I do with dead people is to work out what happened and why. In other words, not just agree with the initial verdict on the immediate cause of death, but find out what's really gone on.
 - Sebastian Lucas (UK)


Waney SquierCertainly in civil cases the lawyers are often very, very clued up and they know the literature at least as well as I do – certainly in birth injury cases, the lawyers are very high-powered people, and it's very stimulating to work with them... You have to be as accurate as you possibly can. They do demand that you have all the papers there to back your opinion, which isn't what's happening in the criminal courts. But in either situation you know that you can't just write a sloppy report, because you're likely to be in the witness box and somebody will read it to you and every single typo, every comma in the wrong place, every misuse of English, will be glaring at you when everybody is focussing on you.
 - Waney Squier (UK)

Derrick PounderThe information I get might only be a photograph of a dead body taken by relatives, or an injured person taken by relatives. It might be a medical report, or an autopsy report performed in another country. And I would evaluate that and give a written or a verbal opinion to the human rights organisation and advise them whether there was solid medical evidence to support the allegation, and whether it was a case which they could pursue... Another aspect is to actually go to the country and have a look... I was involved in one notorious case [in Israel] where the Shin Beit shook a man to death in the same way that you sometimes hear that adults have shaken a baby to death. That case, although a terrible one, was a fascinating one from a scientific and legal and human rights perspective. 
 - Derrick Pounder (UK)

Waney SquierIt was a complete and utter farce to see lawyers struggling to understand incredibly complex physiological explanations for what's happening in baby brains. It's hard enough for us to understand and we've been doing it for years, we've been through medical school.  But for lawyers to try and understand it, and then to say, "Well the court of appeal found that the hypothesis didn't stand up to scrutiny" is a nonsense... That's the problem with court: scientific fact is lost.  The lawyers are there to win the case, and that's all they want to do.
 - Waney Squier (UK)





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