Forensic Expert Witness


Forensic Expert Witness

The Role of a Forensic Expert

Forensic experts can be employed by a variety of entities, such as federal, state or local laboratories or academic institutions. They may be called on to be expert witnesses or hired as consultants to contribute specialized knowledge and advice on scientific or technical issues. Forensic experts may be subpoenaed or appointed by the court to assist the judge or jury in a criminal or civil case, to help an indigent criminal defendant, or to provide a third opinion on information and evidence previously reviewed by the prosecution and defense experts.

Regardless of how or why expert witnesses are called to testify, they must be prepared. They must test evidence or gather technical information related to the case. When testing evidence, they must follow standard lab protocols and procedures. They must proceed step-by-step, in an orderly and logical way, to obtain the test results, facts and information on which conclusions are based.

After gathering information, expert witnesses must develop that information into effective reports that are written in plain English, reflect use of the scientific method and include valid documentation. Expert witnesses and the attorneys or courts who request them must work together to stay focused on the most important issues in the case and to help each other understand technical and legal terms.

Being prepared and organized helps expert witnesses add a sense of professionalism to their testimony. It also helps during the crucial — and sometimes laborious — pretrial discovery process undertaken by opposing attorneys to learn the underlying facts surrounding a matter in dispute. Discovery involves providing requested information to members of the opposing side that may help them prove their case. It is structured and driven by deadlines imposed by the court or by procedural rules.

Tips for Testifying in Court

Expert witnesses must convince the judge or jury that their testimony is sound and truthful. They must be highly knowledgeable, organized, alert, unflappable and ethical:

Knowledgeable - Show that you are up to date, have command of the subject matter in your field, and are knowledgeable about the Federal Rules of Evidence and any state or jurisdictional laws relevant to the case. Know how to use such things as demonstrative evidence (an item not from the crime scene that is used to illustrate a point).

Organized — Be able to easily reference and locate key pieces of evidence. Reports should always be updated to include results of retesting, further testing of previous evidence or testing of new evidence.

Alert — Answer questions promptly and intelligently. How you respond could affect your credibility. Recognize the unauthorized appearance of evidence denied through motion in limine (a pretrial motion that bans evidence from trial for various prejudicial, irrelevancy or constitutional reasons).

Unflappable — Do not appear combative or annoyed during questioning, especially during cross-examination (questioning by the opposing attorney).

Ethical — Know the ethical standards of conduct. Do not be persuaded into presenting false testimony. Display objectivity, not advocacy.

(About the Author)

Doris Wells is a writer and editor at the National Institute of Justice.

Law 101

The prospect of giving expert testimony can be intimidating, and preparation is critical. A new self-paced, online training course from NIJ, "Law 101: Legal Guide for the Forensic Expert," is intended to help specialists prepare to give testimony in court. See following link for full details.

Forensics Expert Training

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This special Kindle collection consists primarily of the landmark articles written by members of the Behavioral Science Units, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, at the FBI Academy. These seminal publications in the history of FBI profiling were released by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the information on serial killers provided by the FBI's Training Division.

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Information on Serial Killers

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