July 15, 2007

Should special witnesses summarize expert testimony?

Can jurors really understand all of the data presented to them in complex legal cases? Or should a special witness be allowed to summarize the information for them?

That is the issue coming up before the U.S. Supreme Court in Harms v. United States (Docket number 06-990, 442 F.3d 367, 5th Cir.).

In that worker’s compensation case, the prosecution called a summary witness who presented a flow chart of the information that the jury had heard.

A Fifth District appellate court ruled that the case was complex enough to justify this special witness. The testimony was allowable because it was both impartial and accurate, the court ruled.

In this month’s “Judicial Notebook” of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, attorney/psychologist Jennifer Groscup writes that more psychological research on this topic would better inform the upcoming Supreme Court decision.

The limited empirical research suggests that summary information might help jurors understand information and make better decisions, Dr. Groscup writes. Such summaries might be especially useful to increase understanding of complex testimony by expert witnesses.

Dr. Groscup's article, co-authored by Jennifer Talon, is available online.