November 18, 2007

Call for greater regulation of expert witnesses in England

On CSI, the scientific evidence never lies. In the real world, the truth is far less clearcut. In the wake of a series of highly publicized scandals involving the testimony of expert pediatricians and pathologists, some in England are calling for more professional oversight and regulation of forensic experts. A similar scandal underway in Canada (see Saturday's blog post) could lead to calls for reform in that nation and elsewhere.

The most highly publicized miscarriage of justice in England was the 1999 conviction of Sally Clark for murdering her two children. Clark was eventually exonerated but died earlier this year of likely suicide. In that case, Sir Roy Meadow gave inaccurate testimony that the chances of Clark's two babies having died of natural causes were one in 73 million.

Today's Times of London has an article on the current legal climate vis-à-vis expert witnesses. According to the article, the British public is "clamoring" for legislation to regulate expert witnesses. "But how to do that without calling into question thousands of court decisions will not be an easy task."

Fueling this public sentiment is a recent case in which a bogus scientist, Gene Morrison, was found to have given evidence in 700 cases. Morrison, who in February received a five-year prison term, admitted he pretended to be an expert witness and bought his qualifications on the internet because it "seemed easier" than getting real ones. The Times article cites a study by a senior judge finding that most judges and lawyers do not check experts' qualifications.

But even more worrisome, the article states, has been the recent proliferation of parents convicted of causing cot deaths, shaking babies to death, or harming them by creating symptoms of fictitious illness. Social workers bristle at accusations that these cases are exaggerated, saying that the cases represent heightened vigilance in response to a previous era in which children were left to die at the hands of their parents. "In comparison with the volume of cases, the number of errors is tiny," said one social work official. "We never rely on expert witnesses alone."

The full Times of London article, entitled "The Expert as Judge and Jury," is online here.