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Monday, April 20, 2015

Expert Testimony- An Alarming New Report Showing How Flawed It Really Is

The North Carolina Crime Lab is not the only agency that failed. In a newly released report , the Justice Department and the FBI acknowledged that examiners in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials they testified for the prosecution over a twenty year period. Specifically, 26 of 28 employees overstated hair comparison results that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of trials. These cases included 32 defendants that were sentenced to death. 14 of the 32 have already been executed or have died in prison. As a result, the Justice Department and the FBI are now conducting one of the largest post conviction reviews of cases that fall within this period. You can read the article here.

When I was a prosecutor, calling my criminalist as my expert witness in a trial was one of the one less demanding tasks. For me, before commencing testimony of a criminologist was like pressing play on a DVD player. After the criminologist entered the courtroom carrying their briefcase, sat down at the witness stand and started organizing their paperwork, I "pressed play" beginning my robot request of their background, to provide background information to the jury, their education, their degrees, certifications and all the training they received from the day they started their career. Then we would explore the testing they conducted. At the end, I would ask for a conclusion.

At this point, jurors just wanted to hear the result after listening mind numbing data, sometimes for hours. They may not understand the science, flawed as it can be and which has become more confusing as technology advances, and if they don't, they cannot relate to the conclusion.

To convey that they do understand, jurors believe criminalist testimony. While they don't understand it, having listened to all of the 'experts' education and experience, they generally conclude "this person clearly knows what he/she is doing." They also believe the sworn expert is honest and not motivated to manage results. Jurors typically have not had bad "life experiences" with expert witnesses in a courtroom, unlike many which have had such bad experiences, outside the courtroom, with law enforcement where they are aware of victims of unfavorable treatment, witnesses to unfavorable treatment or heard stories on the news. Jurors see the criminologist as an impartial authority at work in "a laboratory", going to work each day to do their job.

The problem is they do make errors. They do make mistakes. Thus, reviews like this are absolutely necessary. However, they can't provide relief to the fourteen who were convicted and subsequently executed or died in prison.

Mecklenburg County Criminal Law Updates Provided by The Law Office of Carilyn Ibsen PLLC (888)543-2427


posted by Carilyn Ibsen at


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