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Many people have seen an ‘‘expert witness’’ in a courtroom or at the scene of a crime on a variety of television shows. These popular shows depict a highly educated and sophisticated expert with several degrees, including a Ph.D., who has all the answers. These shows portray both the reality and the fantasy of expert witnesses and their role in the judicial system. This research paper will discuss the history of the use of expert witnesses, admissibility of expert opinions, and types of expert testimony. The final section will discuss the use of expert witnesses in domestic violence situations.
The use of expert witnesses in the courtroom to assist law enforcement officials dates back to the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692, when a Doctor Brown first testified in a heresy trial. He informed the court that in his medical opinion, the defendant had bewitched the victims. From this dubious beginning, the use of expert witnesses has grown in both criminal and civil cases to include any relevant topic that is beyond the ordinary knowledge of everyday jurors.
In both civil and criminal cases, the justice system has come to depend on expert witnesses. For example, in 1996 there were 110 crime laboratories in the United States. By 1976 there were 240 active crime lab facilities, and in 1992 that figure increased to over 345 labs. This explosive growth of forensic facilities has not occurred without complications. Some personnel in these laboratories have incorrectly identified various physical items, including hair samples, blood typing, and bullets. The overwhelming majority of these facilities, however, have performed painstaking analyses that have assisted law enforcement agencies in their pursuit of finding the truth.
Admission of Expert Testimony
Frye vs. United States (1923) was the first major case that dealt with scientific evidence presented by expert witnesses. The Court of Appeals determined that the admission of expert testimony regarding a systolic blood pressure deception test was unacceptable. The ruling was based on the rationale that the test had not gained enough general acceptance or standing among physiological and psychological authorities. Thus the first guideline for admissibility of expert testimony is: The source from which the witness’s scientific deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.
Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence further details the guidelines that should be used in determining the admissibility of expert testimony. It states that expert testimony must assist the jury in understanding the evidence or material facts of a case. After Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993) was settled, the rule was amended to include the following standards: The testimony must (1) be based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) be the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) be the result of the application of these principles and methods by the witness to the facts of the case.
Expert witnesses come with a variety of different qualifications and backgrounds. Contrary to popular belief, an expert witness does not have to have a Ph.D. The expert witness must have special education, training, knowledge, or experience in an area that is the subject of his or her testimony. Experts may simply have a high school education, but must have worked in an area for a significant number of years and received special training that is unique to their profession. At the other end of the spectrum, experts may have a number of degrees and have conducted research in a particular area but have never worked in that area. Many experts will fall within the happy medium of the spectrum, having both an advanced education in the form of a bachelor’s or master’s degree and several years of work experience in a specific field. In the area of domestic violence, there are a number of victim advocates who do not have advanced degrees but have qualified as expert witnesses.
Types of Expert Opinions
Expert witnesses may testify about a number of different facts. Some experts may testify about physical evidence such as DNA samples; other experts, such as psychologists, may testify about a defendant’s state of mind. Still others may testify about what occurred at a crime scene. No matter what an expert witness testifies to, he or she must be qualified as an expert in the area of testimony. This is especially true when dealing with expert testimony in domestic violence situations.
Expert Witnesses in Domestic Violence Situations
Expert witness testimony in domestic violence situations is still controversial. The controversy lies in the fact that many laypersons have misconceptions surrounding the complexities associated with domestic violence. Attorneys will therefore use expert witnesses in the hope of dispelling these misconceptions.
The testimony of such expert witnesses can take a number of different forms. In situations where it seems unfathomable why a victim would choose to stay with her abuser, experts are brought in to testify about the dynamics of battering and explain why this might occur. In other instances, a victim may attack or kill her abuser even though she was not being abused at the time. An expert witness is then used to testify about the victim’s state of mind. The expert will discuss the issue of imminent danger and explain why the victim used deadly force as a method of defense.
More and more courts are accepting expert witness testimony in the area of domestic violence. The use of expert witnesses in these situations plays an essential role in explaining to jurors the dynamics of battering and why victims may act the way they do.
- Holtz, L. Criminal Evidence for Law Enforcement Officers, 5th ed. Charlottesville, VA: Gould Publications, 2005.
- Schuller, R. ‘‘Juror’s Decisions in Trials of Battered Women Who Kill: The Role of Prior Beliefs and Expert Testimony.’’ Journal of Applied Psychology 24 (1994): 316.
- Wallace, H. Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.
- Cases and Statutes:
- Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993)
- Federal Rules of Evidence 702
- Frye vs. United States, 293 Fed 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923)
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