My Piece on Forensics Experts Testifying for the Defense

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

It’s up at Reason.

It looks at the “investigative report” on Georgia’s Dr. Kris Sperry I blogged about earlier today. It also looks at a situation in Minnesota I first posted about several months ago. There, District Attorney Jim Backstrom threatened to block a county medical examiner’s reappointment if she continued to allow her staff to testify for defense attorneys in other jurisdictions.

You can read Backstrom’s threatening emails to the medical examiner here.

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8 Responses to “My Piece on Forensics Experts Testifying for the Defense”

  1. #1 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    HIGHLY recommend you follow that link and read Big Jim Backstrom’s email. It summarizes the whole attitude that is the gap between a Justice System and a Legal System.

    Lady Justice is not a big dance partner for Big Jim.

  2. #2 |  Galius | 

    I’m confused.
    Is it understood that a county’s medical examiner works soley for the prosecution in that county (ie their job is to find guilt), rather than as an impartial pathologist simply noting facts?

    That’s what the ME seemed to be stating:
    As we discussed when I first became Medical Examiner, I agree with you
    that it would be a conflict of interest if Susan or I were to testify
    for the defense in one of the counties that we cover.

    Anybody have an informed opinion on this?

  3. #3 |  supercat | 

    If a defendant calls upon a medical examiner to testify, what is that person supposed to do? I understand that in certain cases a witness may refuse to answer a question unless ordered by a judge(*), but if the testimony of an ME would be relevant in a case I doubt a judge would accept such refusal.

    I could understand a conflict of interest, perhaps, if the examiner were being paid by someone outside government, but the examiner’s job and duty is to seek out the truth, whichever way it points.

    (*) IANAL, but I believe that a witness may legitimately refuse to answer a question which seems to be irrelevant to a case, even if both parties to a case want the question asked. For example, if in a case between two companies, a witness was called who worked at a third company, neither party might object to that witness being asked to reveal confidential information about his company, but the witness himself could object and the person asking the question would have to demonstrate relevancy.

  4. #4 |  Andy Craig | 

    Frankly, I wonder if there’s really much value in trying to make the state’s own forensic experts into objective finders of fact. I think much better would be to make forensic testimony, like the trial as a whole is supposed to be, an adversarial system. The defense should get a voucher to pay for an equivalent private expert analysis and testimony for every state expert witness called (the last thing we need is a forensic equivalent of state-employed public defenders). I just don’t see how objectivity can ever be expected from government-paid medical examiners who would, no matter how many reforms were implemented creating better independence from the prosecution, be testifying as to the defendant’s guilt 99.9% of the time. I think we’d be better off if the experts out there offering defense testimony weren’t drawn from the same pool of people as the professional prosecutorial witnesses, the same way it would be a horrible idea for public defenders to be a randomly selected prosecutor from the same office.

  5. #5 |  KBCraig | 

    It seems to me that every government ME should be immediately disqualified as an expert witness, until they can demonstrate that they have testified against the prosecutor’s interest, and are willing to do so again.

  6. #6 |  Ken | 

    As a former prosecutor and current defense lawyer, I am always delighted to be able to elicit testimony from an expert that the expert has testified for both sides, not just for the plaintiff/prosecution or for the defense. It’s much more credible.

  7. #7 |  Tokin42 | 

    Radley: It’s one thing to say a state medical examiner’s freelance consulting is impairing his ability to do his job. It’s something else entirely to say that a state forensic expert should never testify for the defense out of principle.

    I was under the impression the principle for both the prosecutor and defense was to make sure innocent people aren’t tried and convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

  8. #8 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » WOPOTY Candidate: James Backstrom | 

    [...] is making an impressive early run at the 2009 Worst Prosecutor of the Year award.  Backstrom, you may remember, is the prosecutor who sent threatening emails to his county medical examiner because she had the [...]

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