Fans of legal dramas had an eye-opening introduction to the real world of courtroom proceedings during Monday’s afternoon symposium, “Presenting Expert Testimony in The Courtroom.” This unique session featured two veterans of legal preparation and proceedings, Judge Eric Haner and Saeed Jortani, PhD, DABCC, FACB, who facilitated a discussion of what it takes to prepare as an expert witness for criminal and civil cases.
Haner is a judge in Jefferson District Court in Louisville, Kentucky, while Jortani for 16 years has directed the forensic toxicology program at the University of Louisville, which is “designed to prepare pathology residents to serve as an expert witness in the court of law,” he said.
One of the first steps in serving as a witness is to qualify as an expert witness through a voir dire examination; voir dire being a French term which means to “speak the truth.” Attorneys ask questions of the witness to determine if this individual could be classified as an expert for the trial. The witness must be competent in the specific area of interest based on skill, practical experience, knowledge, education, training, or a combination of these characteristics.
Haner explained that the best advice he could give someone who is preparing to give expert testimony in the courtroom is that “the expert witness is there to teach the jury about the issue at hand, not to advocate for either party.”
Experts should have background knowledge to understand the methods, processes, procedures, and technologies that may be involved in the specific area of interest for expert testimony. Before a witness provides testimony, there must be a written disposition of his or her qualifications. Being established by a court as an expert witness enhances the credibility of any testimony. Financial compensation for expert testimony could be viewed negatively by the court and may affect the expert’s credibility. Witnesses who do not qualify will not be able to testify in court.
Jortani and Haner described common courtroom atmosphere and provided a real world experience by conducting a mock trial where they reenacted how judges and attorneys perform in action. The room for the symposium was staged as a courtroom, with 12 jurors, two attorneys, a judge, and a witness. The audience was glued to their seats as the speakers facilitated a mock trial of Commonwealth of Kentucky vs Shayna Hubers, in which an honor student was accused of killing her boyfriend. Haner and Jortani demonstrated the types of questions that witnesses often face in court proceedings and responded to direct- and cross-examination questions.
“Dr. Jortani’s session gave lots of insight on courtroom behavior, on the preparation involved, and what to expect in the courtroom for a new expert witness,” said attendee Patrick Kyle. Another attendee, Robert Dixon, said “there are a lot of legal aspects to the work we do on a daily basis, so seeing examples of the issues that could be presented in the courtroom is really helpful.” And attendee Elia Mears said that she learned a lot about how to choose an expert witness and the importance of experts being prepared for cross-examination.
The speakers highlighted that expert witnesses have no control over courtroom proceedings. Expert witnesses have the responsibility to communicate their testimony clearly in terms that jurors understand. The bottom line is a witness must speak the truth, state the facts, and not provide assumptions or speculations.