Throughout your career as a forensic expert, you can expect to appear in court as an expert witness to provide your expertise and interpretations of laboratory results. On September 2, 2019, Dr. Jack Kalin gave a talk at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) regarding expert testimony and ethics as a forensic scientist. Primarily, Dr. Kalin emphasized courtroom etiquette and delivering an effective testimony the ‘Average Joe’ could understand. Members of the jury often are not scientists, so your goal is to ensure they hear the accurate science and use it towards an informed judgment. Namely, he discussed how to prepare before appearing in court, what to expect in court and proper courtroom etiquette, and what is typical of an expert witness testimony (personal communication, 2019).
Before setting foot in a courtroom, forensic experts are responsible for preserving evidence in their possession in its chain-of-custody and quality control of all analyses performed. If the evidence loses its status as being authentic, it is no longer viable as evidence and can be dismissed by the court. Often lawyers are uninformed on the intricacies of scientific analyses, so they will emphasize the chain-of-custody, or the location and/or person in possession of evidence (Dr. Kalin, personal communication, 2019). Of course, this includes the circumstances of obtaining the evidence and precautions taken to preserve its original condition.
A significant aspect of maintaining evidence authentication is quality control of all analyses, otherwise, the results could be inaccurate. It is always essential to ensure quality control throughout the chain-of-custody. To feel best prepared for courtroom testimony, Dr. Kalin advises considering what could be asked regarding techniques and analysis and make brief notes while performing those tasks. to Dr. Kalin, consistently practicing this ensures you are not caught off-guard during testimony and educate jurors on the science, so they are able to make an informed decision.
Although an expert witness is limited solely to their area of expertise, they can provide an opinion with a scientific basis to support it. As you would expect, opinion is subject to levels of certainty or probability which will be challenged in court (Dr. Kalin, personal communication, 2019). Expert witnesses understand they do not testify for anyone; it is best to remain neutral and maintain credibility. Particularly, Dr. Kalin advises helping the jurors understand the science so it helps them make an informed decision for the trial. A forensic scientist must be communicative, coherent, and concise in their testimony to best achieve this. If a testimony is difficult or understands to follow, it does not help the jurors in deciding the final verdict.
As an expert witness, be prepared to recite your qualifications and spell your own name. Granted, Dr. Kalin states that qualifications are the only thing you can rehearse, but it will certainly be challenged. Anything that is public record can be used to question your competency and position as a professional in that field. You are only considered an expert by the court, and this includes your education, certifications, publications, and years of experience. Either side can challenge these credentials as an expert and attempt to use previous testimony against you to evaluate your credibility. It is important to remain open and honest in testimony, then you will not have anything to withhold. If your science is consistent, can be reproduced, and reliable there should not be an issue standing beside your previous testimony.
Therefore, an effective testimony is delivered with confidence and is concise. Do not treat any part of testimony as a casual conversation; be sure to speak in complete sentences, avoid slang or jargon, and avoid pronouns as it muddles understanding a trial’s transcript. Of course, practice public speaking often to minimize awkward pauses and filler words that make you seem incompetent and unqualified as an expert. You are neutral and have no concern for the outcome of the trial. Aim to appear sincere and trustworthy to members of the jury and deliver your testimony with confidence without seeming patronizing.
Do not be a show-off and use complex vocabulary in efforts to impress anyone. Remember, no matter how many times you testify you will make mistakes and embarrass yourself, and Dr. Kalin advises to lose your ego so you take nothing personally. Also, it is acceptable to answer you do not know the answer to a hypothetical, or that no one could answer with certainty either (Dr. Kalin, personal communication, 2019).
With any profession, there are expected codes of conduct to be adhered to, and forensic experts are no exception. Obviously, falsifying reports or exaggerating results are one of the prevalent ways a forensic scientist’s credibility can be questioned (Saks, 2019, p. 363). As Dr. Kalin mentioned, the practice of ‘dry labbing’ is widely frowned upon, whereupon a scientist submits laboratory reports without performing the work (personal communication, 2019).
Dr. Kalin stated that anything from knowingly submitting invalid reports, a confirmation bias, or concealment of any kind are all considered to be ethical breaches. Additionally, a lack of quality control in a laboratory means even valid and widely accepted techniques could produce inaccurate results unintentionally (Saks, 2019, p. 363). Nonetheless, an ethical scientist must remain transparent and truthful, knowledgeable and credible. According to Dr. Kalin, if your credibility is damaged as a forensic expert, your entire career is on the line.
In conclusion, the key to be an ethical scientist is to be reliable and accurate. To do so, you must investigate everything and assume errors will occur. Remember, any forensic expert is likely to appear in court at some point in their career and will be expected to adhere to a code of conduct. As an expert witness, your job is to provide your educated opinions and interpretation of laboratory results.
Of course, an effective testimony is one that is understood by members of the jury, so they can make an informed decision based on it. To accomplish this, you must actively prepare for courtroom testimony during laboratory tests, practice and refine good courtroom conduct, and remain transparent to prevent your ethical practices being questioned. Although testifying as a forensic expert is highly demanding and often frustrating, I appreciate being aware of these issues for my career in forensics.