Monday, October 06, 2008

Forensic expert witnesses

For some continuing education this year I’m attending a series of lectures by Joel Klass, a noted Forensic Psychiatrist and expert witness. Dr. Klass is showing his years and his lectures and sometimes scattered, but his anecdotal evidence is priceless.

What’s wrong with the American legal system (according to Dr. Klass)

- Growing reliance on expert witnesses

- No clear standard of what level of experience constitutes an expert

- Difficulty determining junk science (silicon breast implant awards, Volkswagen seat belt case)

- Subjective influences affecting objective facts

In my work in database forensics, I could really identify with these issues. There are many “fake” computer experts out there, often under-skilled and under-employed goofballs who give themselves the title of expert.

Dr, Klass once treated a couple who were raised in separate foster homes. They met fell in love, married and had a child, all before discovering that they were brother and sister!

Interesting, Dr. Klass stated something that animal husbandry breeders have known for centuries, that there are no ill-effects in breeding brother to sister.

Klass says that inbreeding accentuates bad traits and gave the Hapsburg Hemophilia as an example, but stated that the taboo against sibling breeding in humans was designed to enforce the incest taboo, a more social and innate phenomenon.

Any horse breeder will tell you that from a purely genetic perspective, line breeding can create spectacular horses . . . .

Iderntifying bias in expert witnesses

Most judges expect the expert to zealously advocate for their client, and they do not expect the expert to be fair and balanced. The judge will weigh your testimony against the expert of the opposing party, and presenting yourself as fair and unbiased can backfire.

Tricks for evaluating influence – You can evaluate whether a child witness has been unduly influenced by a parent with the “Is it OK to fight?” question. However the child replies, the evaluator takes a strong opposing position. I use a similar technique to determine if someone is a sycophant, asking a general question and then taking an opposing posture.

Experience and the unconscious – The famous “vase” perception test is very revealing. To pre-pubescent children, they see the dolphins, while adults see the naughty bits:

Challenge the opposing expert – Never accept expert opinion at face value, and insist on asking “what is the basis for your opinion”

Watch out for resume fraud – Many medical experts will “puff” their experience. Fluff, exaggeration and distortion of work experience are a dead giveaway.

Here are some actual medical distortions noted by Dr. Klass by experts trying to hide facts:

- “he is mature and somber” – Used to descibe a someone with clinical depression

- “he is a manly disciplinarian” – Used to descibe a child beater

- “he has a period of isolated unproductively” – Used to descibe a someone who served time in prison!

- “he has a history of being careless with flammables” – Used to descibe an arsonist

- “she has a history of encouraging men’s financial gifts” – Used to descibe a whore

Klass often interjects his personal opinions into the lectures, a few gems:

- The adversarial system should be eliminated for feuding divorcee’s custody battles.

- Conspiracy theories are not the result of the fact that one-fifth of our population is retarded. Rather, people believe in conspiracies (often in the face of overwhelming evidence) because of “pressure” from third parties (e.g. Oliver Stone in the Kennedy Assassination).