Feb 5, 2024 by Foresight
Behind the Scenes: Bringing Expert Witnesses into the Spotlight
An expert witness is someone with extensive knowledge or experience of a particular field beyond that of the average person, and their primary role is to express an independent expert opinion based on the information that is provided when part of arbitrations, tribunals, and litigation.
In all cases, the duty of an expert witness is to give to the Court or tribunal an impartial opinion on aspects of matters within their expertise which are in dispute, and they are completely impartial to either the defence or prosecution.
However, it is the sheer level of knowledge, detail and range of expert witnesses that have been capturing the attention of movie and TV viewers for a long time now. So much so, that they are being brought into the spotlight directly, creating a new love for expert witness genres and a huge new awareness for their importance.
But where can we find this watchlist? Let’s start with…
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, 2016 Series
During this series we see world-renowned forensic scientist, Dr Henry Lee, testify as an expert witness on behalf of O.J. Simpson during his 1995 trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, in regard to the handling of blood evidence.
Here, Dr Lee's expert testimony portrayed Los Angeles police and crime scene technicians as incompetent and ultimately wrong, explaining how the blood evidence collected at the murder scene had been contaminated.
This information was then credited as a significant factor leading to Simpson's acquittal.
My Cousin Vinny, 1992 Movie
The highlight of “My Cousin Vinny” is the scene where the underestimated Mona Lisa Vito tears apart the prosecution’s theory of the case using extensive knowledge as an expert witness in automobiles, based on her experience working as a mechanic in her family’s garage.
Here, Vito is asked “what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel-Air Chevrolet with a 327 cubic inch engine and a four-barrel carburettor?” to which she claims this to be a trick question, as “Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55… the 327 didn’t come out until ’62, and it wasn’t offered in a Bel-Air with a four-barrel carb until ’64, however, in 1964 the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top dead centre.”
Vito also challenges the tyre marks made at the scene, stating the fact that they were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, and not by the 1964 Buick Skylark as wrongly claimed by the defence. She then goes on to explain that the tyres in question could not have made the marks without positraction (a limited slip differential which distributes power equally to both the right and left tires) which was not available on the 1964 Buick Skylark.
As a result, Vito’s expert witness testimony throws out the case.
The Staircase, 2022 Series
Duane Deaver’s role was paramount in the Michael Peterson trial featured in “The Staircase," in which Peterson was charged with murdering his wife in 2001, Kathleen Peterson, whose bloody and battered body was found at the bottom of a staircase at their North Carolina home.
In both the trial and drama series, Peterson had always insisted that he had merely found Kathleen's body and that she must have fallen down the stairs, however Deaver testified as an expert witness in bloodstain pattern analysis for the prosecution that bloodstain analysis from the scene indicated Kathleen Peterson's injuries were sustained during a fatal beating, and not from an accidental fall.
Concussion, 2015 Movie
“Concussion” tells the story of Dr Bennett Omalu, a forensic pathologist who is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that afflicts people who have experienced multiple concussions and other forms of repeated brain trauma.
The movie looks specifically at Dr Omalu’s impact on professional football, and one of the first scenes shows him testifying as an expert witness in a murder trial in regard to neuropathology and forensic pathology.
As a result, “Concussion” also spotlights how Dr Omalu successfully forced the NFL to take concussions seriously, with CTE lawsuits becoming more common from athletes and sportspeople.
In fact, Dr Omalu’s work has led to expert witnesses testifying or assisting in court cases that have revolutionised injury management in athletic competitions. For example, where 5,000 former NFL players joined a lawsuit accusing the league of hiding the risks of concussion from them, a federal judge approved a settlement of that lawsuit that authorised multimillion dollar payments to former players who are suffering from severe neurological disorders, including CTE.
Expert Witness, 2021 Documentary Series
Whether it’s toxicologists, forensic dentists, or experts in microscopic lifeforms, no TV series is more renowned for bringing expert witnesses into the spotlight than BBC’s aptly named “Expert Witness.”
This dramatic true crime series reveals how some of the UK's most serious and complex cases have been solved by the expertise of expert witnesses, with cases ranging from the involvement of a facial reconstruction expert witness to help identify a dismembered body, to a UK fibre specialist bringing closure to Australia's longest-running murder investigation and a handwriting expert who assists an elderly woman whose house has been sold without consent.
Now 3 series long, “Expert Witness” uncovers just how many different specialities there are when it comes to finding the right expert. It’s well worth a watch, and bring to light some truly incredible cases, not to mention just how much detail can be uncovered when those experts know just where to look.
Based on true events
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