Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Closer Look at Courtoom 'Experts'

An excellent article today from Toronto Star writer Tracey Tyler, Trouble with authority? Au contraire, canvasses the prominence - and fallibility - of expert testimony in the courtroom:

Tall and dashingly attired – with a fresh red carnation in his lapel – the 37-year-old forensic pathologist delivered his testimony with supreme confidence and a strategy for disarming skeptics.

Challenged on his findings by the trial judge, Spilsbury produced his microscope and invited jurors to an adjoining room to examine a cross-section of the victim's scar tissue.

The dramatic episode at the Old Bailey in October 1910 cemented his connection with the jury and elevated Spilsbury to superstar status. Author Colin Evans, who describes the scene in The Father of Forensics, a recent book about Spilsbury's cases, argues there was perhaps no figure of the 20th century who wielded such enormous courtroom power.

Tyler's exploration of the role of expert evidence in Canada's courtrooms occurs against the backdrop of an ongoing public inquiry by Mr. Justice Stephen Goudge into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario .

The inquiry is focussed on errors made by Dr. Charles Smith, the former head of the forensic pathology unit at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. He has been described as "a controversial pathologist involved in several prominent cases where innocent parents were charged with killing their children."

The inquiry was prompted by concerns regarding the accuracy of Smith's "expert" findings on the causes of twenty infant deaths. Ten additional cases of concern have been been revealed at the inquiry.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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