February 27, 2008

Justices sound cautionary notes on "expert" witnesses

The scandal involving Canadian pathologist Charles Smith is continuing to send shock waves through forensic circles. This week, leading justices gave some cautionary advice in the ongoing judicial inquiry.

First, judges need to become more scientifically literate, so they can critically analyze expert witness testimony and spot junk science. That was the advice from Justice Marc Rosenberg of Ontario, who runs a program that provides such education to judges.

Second, expert witnesses who stray outside their area of expertise need to be reined in. Justice Patrick Lesage, former chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court, told the tribunal that such "roamers" need to be kept on a short leash.

Dr. Smith, the subject of the inquiry, violated both of these tenets. First, he was not trained as an expert in forensic pathology. Second, he often strayed outside his supposed field of expertise. His testimony was central to the convictions of at least a dozen parents and caregivers in the deaths of children.

Lesage said he hesitates to even use the term "expert" because it conveys too much authority. He prefers to call such witnesses "people who, because of their training and experience, were permitted to give an opinion."

The full article, from the Toronto Star, is here. My previous coverage of the Smith scandal is here, here and here.

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