November 25, 2007

Expert witness controversy spreads

Wrongfully convicted woman can sue expert

Last week, I reported on the brewing controversy in England over unfettered reliance on expert witnesses. Now, the Toronto Star has an article focusing on the controversy in Canada, as well as elsewhere in the world.

It's a fascinating look at some of the high-profile cases that have led to the current attitude of skepticism toward expert scientific and medical witnesses.

As the article explains, the adversarial system is premised on an equal fight between
the accused and the government. Yet the criminally accused typically do not have the funds or expertise to obtain their own experts to challenge the government's expert witnesses, who often wear sterling credentials.

In reaction to a series of convictions based in large part on the testimony of a government pathologist, Canada has reformed its civil laws to allow people to sue an overzealous expert over his findings. The case was brought by Louise Reynolds against forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, whose testimony led to her conviction in the death of her 7-year-old daughter. It later turned out that the girl was mauled to death by a dog. (See my previous blog post on the judicial inquiry into Dr. Smith's expert findings.)

Such tort law is "a first for the common-law world," according to the Star.