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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Barring Psychologists From the Courtroom

     As trial witnesses, experts are brought into the courtroom to help jurors understand things beyond their knowledge as laypersons. Unlike ordinary witnesses, experts can express their opinions, which because they are experts, carry extra weight. Through exhibits and testimony, these specialists can point out similarities (and dissimilarities) between, say, a defendant's fingerprint, hair follicle, DNA, or handwriting to crime scene latents, hair, blood, or a document. A forensic pathologist in a murder case might be able to tell jurors when, where, and how the victim had been killed. While these courtroom experts work with physical evidence, and apply hard science to their inquiries, even they don't always draw the same conclusions after analyzing the same evidence. For the administration of justice, this is not a good thing.

     In terms of disciplines and fields of study, the more courtroom experts there are, and the less stringent the legal standards are for who is an expert, and who isn't, the worse it is for the trial process. Today there are too many trials featuring dueling expert testimony. Instead of helping jurors determine the facts of particular case, the competing experts render the process more difficult, and unreliable. This is why, especially in the soft-science disciplines of criminology (sociology) and psychology, trial judges should deny these practitioners expert witness status. In other words, when it comes to courtroom testimony, we'd be better off if they kept their opinions to themselves.

Psychologists in Child Abuse Cases

     Pennsylvania is the only state where prosecutors are not permitted to call psychologists to the stand as expert witnesses in child molestation cases to help jurors evaluate the credibility of young accusers. Specifically, in cases where victims of sexual abuse waited months or even years to come forward, prosecutors want psychologists to explain why this doesn't mean these accusers are not believable. These expert witnesses, according to prosecutors, can help jurors understand the psychology of this form of victimhood.

     Defense attorneys, on the other hand, object to this form of expert testimony on the grounds it usurps the role of the jury, and the power of common sense, in deciding if a particular accuser is a credible witness. In performing this duty, jurors do not need the help of a psychologists whose opinions on such matters are no better than anyone else's. Moreover, history has shown that too many prosecution shrinks have lost their objectivity by  thinking of themselves as members of law enforcement teams. (For a good example of this phenomena, look up the old McMartin preschool case.)

     As much as I loath pedophiles, and like to see them put away for life, I agree with the defense attorneys on this issue. In American jurisprudence, there are now expert witnesses testifying on virtually everything under the sun. It has become a racket, and it's screwing up the system. They cost a lot of money, and are corrupting the trial process. Some experts will testify for whoever will pay them. Others specialize in helping one side or the other. Too many of these witnesses claim expertise in fields that are themselves bogus, and many come into court with phony resumes. In selecting between dueling experts, jurors might side with the hired-gun who looks the best, or is the most persuasive speaker. A complete phony can look and sound more credible than his or her more credentialed counterpart.

     Psychologists and criminologists should not be qualified as expert witnesses. The jury process, and the criminal justice system, would be better off without their conflicting opinions.

2 comments:

  1. I am confused. Aren't those considered "expert witnesses" vetted? Don't they have to meet a standard protocol? I was under the impression that to be paid as a field expert one has to meet minimum qualifications. Does that deviate from state to state? Or is the term expert used willy-nilly - as in, if I can make your credentials sound good even though you have taken only a single community college level course on criminology, I can call you as an expert?

    Fantastically interesting blog, btw. I'm hooked.

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    1. If say, the prosecution questions the qualifications of a defense expert witness, the judge will decide if this witness can give an opinion on the issue in question. Usually the judge will allow the expert to testify and let the jury decide his or her credibility. As a result, a lot of phony experts give evidence in courts of law. It's a problem that is hurting forensic science.

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