Category Archives: Research & Trends

Human brain

Do Jurors Have an Anti-Science Prejudice Against Expert Witnesses?

Expert witnesses justly wonder whether they will need to overcome skepticism that juries may harbor toward witnesses who have special expertise. The view that all opinions are created equal and that expert opinions are “elitist” has gained the acceptance of a surprising number of people. Coupled with the insurance industry’s campaign to disparage legitimate opinions as the product of “junk science,” it can be difficult for experts to gain the respect of jurors.

Antipathy toward experts is exemplified by individuals who refuse to accept that human behavior causes climate change or who claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax. Evidence that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans cause global warming is dismissed because a source with a differing view —often someone who is funded by the fossil fuel industry — expresses an opposing opinion. Evidence that the American death rate from COVID-19 vastly exceeds the death rate caused by even the worst flu season is dismissed as the product of a partisan conspiracy to inflate the number of deaths caused by the pandemic.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has expressed concern that respect for demonstrable facts has been hindered by an “anti-science bias.” Adrian Bardon, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, laments the circumstance that “Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes.”

Are Potential Jurors Really Anti-Science?

Fortunately for expert witnesses, most people tend to trust experts in most contexts. Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, observes that people trust their car mechanics and dentists. Consumers accept that mechanics have superior knowledge of internal combustion engines and that dentists know more than they do about diseases that affect teeth and gums.

Professor Oreskes’ research suggests that jurors are most likely to distrust experts when they don’t like the implications of their findings. A segment of society is skeptical about climate change because addressing the problem might require a change of lifestyle. Denying the problem is easier than giving up a gas guzzling vehicle or weatherizing a home. By the same token, it is easier to deny the reality of the pandemic than to give up socializing at taverns or nightclubs.

In addition, expert opinions are more likely to be doubted when they address questions that have become politicized. Rejection of expert opinions concerning the number of COVID-19 deaths, the utility of wearing masks to keep the virus from spreading, and the impact of human behavior on climate change has been encouraged by some political and institutional leaders for reasons that have nothing to do with the validity of those opinions. The government’s effort to solve a big problem by relying on expert opinions, for example, might undermine a political philosophy that rejects big government.

Effective Expert Testimony

Professor Oreskes’ research might reassure expert witnesses and the lawyers who hire them. Most experts do not testify about topics that are debated in the political sphere. In most cases, jurors have no personal stake in the subject matter of an expert’s testimony. Jurors do not serve their own interests by rejecting the principles of physics that accident reconstruction experts rely upon when they express expert opinions about the location or cause of a car crash. When a roofer testifies that a leaky roof was caused by improper installation of shingles, accepting that testimony will have no implications for the juror’s lifestyle.

Some experts may need to overcome bias instilled by insurance industry campaigns to brand as “junk science” the basis for opinions that experts rely upon. Yet evidence suggests that judges rather than jurors have been influenced by those claims. The Daubert standard, if properly understood and correctly implemented, screens out junk science, at least in civil cases where judges tend to apply it more rigorously than in criminal cases.

As applied by some judges, the Daubert standard may also screen out opinions that jurors could reasonably regard as well founded. In those  areas (such as toxic tort litigation) where the insurance industry regards expert testimony as particularly controversial, it is more likely that experts will need to overcome the animosity of judges than the bias of jurors.

There is good reason to believe that jurors evaluate expert testimony on its merits. Research shows that jurors ask whether an expert is competent and whether his or her testimony is consistent. Jurors value opinions from experts who demonstrate their integrity by honestly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the data and methodologies upon which they rely.

While lawyers and expert witnesses might be concerned about anti-science bias, judicious use of voir dire can usually screen out jurors who, for political or philosophical reasons, choose to reject the validity of science as a whole. In mainstream cases, a lawyer’s initial focus should be on finding a well-trained expert whose integrity cannot be questioned. After the expert is retained, the focus should be on preparing the expert to communicate opinions effectively and to withstand cross-examination. A strong expert who is prepared to testify is the best antidote to anti-science bias.

 

Expert Witness typography

The Best Expert Witness Qualities According to Social Science Research

The National Law Review has published an overview of social science studies that seek to answer the question of “what makes your expert witness the best expert witness?”

Purpose of the Overview

The overview was authored by Clint Townson, Ph.D., who works as a jury consultant at an expert witness search firm. Townson explained that when evaluating a potential expert witness, examining his or her credentials and experience is only half of the analysis. Towson noted that, especially when an expert is offering testimony on a complex issue, jurors tend to rely on heuristics such as credibility when evaluating expert testimony. Townson then reviewed some of the social science research on credibility, including knowledge, trustworthiness, dynamism, and likability.

Knowledge

Expert witnesses are primarily called to testify because of their knowledge, which includes educational credentials, publications, and experience. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, knowledge is also a product of “clarity in explanations, moderate assertiveness, and familiarity with the intricacies of the case.”

A 2010 study published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law noted that the best way for experts to show their knowledge is to act as teachers for the jury. Experts should aim to be consistent and coherent in their explanations, exhibit reasonable confidence in their own opinions, and demonstrate case-specific knowledge in addition to their general knowledge on the topic.

Trustworthiness

Perceived trustworthiness is a critical factor in whether a juror decides to believe an expert witness’s testimony. Experts who are patient and considerate teachers are likely to be perceived as trustworthy.

Eye contact is also important. A 2008 study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior examined the effects of eye contact on credibility and found that the expert witness’s ability to maintain eye contact with the attorneys and jurors had an effect on those expert’s credibility ratings.

Additionally, a 2000 study published in Law and Human Behavior found that the amount of pay, frequency of testifying, and level of credentials influenced jurors’ perceptions of expert’s believability.

Dynamism

Dynamism or charisma also play a factor in an expert’s credibility. According to a 2006 study published in Law & Social Inquiry, an expert’s ability to endear himself or herself to the jury is important, especially in cases where experts are asked to testify on complex issues. This can be accomplished through the use of simple terms or metaphors, the use of demonstrative examples, and remaining patient and composed through cross examination. In cases where jurors understand very little of an expert’s testimony, an expert’s dynamism combined with a show of passion for and knowledge of the subject matter may be the deciding factor.

Likability

A 1976 study published in Psychology found that likability has been tied to perceptions of trustworthiness and credibility as a whole. Jurors evaluate the likability of witnesses based upon their friendliness, the level of respect that they show, their use of informal language, and nonverbal behaviors including eye contact and vocal inflection.

 

Man on a computer

How Should an Expert Prepare for an Online (e.g. ZOOM) Deposition?

During the pandemic, many things that can be done remotely are in fact being done remotely: those whose jobs allow it are working at home; we interact with our friends and family online; and motion hearings are often being done remotely. Expert witness depositions are also being taken remotely.. There are a number of upsides to this, beyond decreasing potential exposure to the Covid-19 virus: for example, saving the time and travel costs associated with bringing an expert to an in-person deposition or opening up the universe of potential experts by increasing the ability to tap others who are less local.

But there are also challenges associated with online depositions. Some are for the attorney, not the expert, such as coordinating with the court reporter to make sure everything will be properly recorded. For the expert, there are plenty of things the expert should do to prepare for the deposition.

Technical & General Preparation

First, the expert should find out what software will be used for the deposition, make sure it’s downloaded ahead of time, and test the system— including the computer’s camera, microphone, and speakers — well in advance. Frantically trying to download and install the software when its “go” time does not engender confidence in your client or his or her attorney — and will not make the other side take you seriously.

Second, the expert should double check what will be in his or her background during the deposition and “stage” the setting appropriately. It may be helpful to have diplomas, technical certifications or licenses, treatises, and perhaps some tasteful and unobjectionable artwork as background. Don’t have children’s artwork, stuffed animals, the trashy novels the expert reads during his or her downtime, or anything controversial or political in view. The background framing the expert should look as professional as would the inside of the law firm conference room where in-person depositions are typically taken.

Related to this: the attorney taking the deposition may — and can — ask the expert to pan the camera around the room to make sure there is no one there feeding the expert cues or responses. Make sure the entire room is a suitable backdrop for a deposition.

Third: dress to impress. Yes, we all know that Zoom conference dress codes are generally laxer than in-person dress codes … but a deposition is the exception that proves the rule. Treat it as what it effectively is: a remote court hearing. After all, the video may be played in court — the expert should not wear anything he or she would not want a judge or jury to see him or her in. And yes — that includes work pants (or skirt) and work shoes: the expert should not assume that it’s enough to wear a dress shirt and blazer, since at some point, he or she may stand up or back-up or otherwise bring what’s below the waist into view.

Coffee or water — leaving the field of view of an online deposition presents issues that getting up from your chair in an in-person deposition does not. For example: did you get up so you could call, text, or email someone off camera, to get guidance as to how to answer? It is better to minimize, to the greatest degree possible, having to get up and break the online deposition. You can’t control bathroom breaks, but you can minimize breaks for water, coffee, or granola/energy bars: lay the refreshments out ahead of time, if you can.

Logistical Preparation — Exhibits

It’s always best practice for the expert, the attorney for the expert’s client, opposing counsel, and the court reporters to always have their own pre-marked set of exhibits. (Always pre-mark exhibits: it saves time and cuts down on confusion.) But in an in-person deposition, a failure to do so is of less moment: the parties can share exhibits on the spot, then provide extra copies later, as needed. However, that’s clearly not an option during a remote deposition, where you might have people in four, five, or more locations (e.g. the expert, the attorneys on each side, any litigants attending the deposition, and the court reporter may all be appearing from their own homes or offices); everyone needs to have their own copy in advance.

The real responsibility for marking and forwarding exhibits this rests principally on the attorney taking the deposition, but the expert should at least contact the attorney representing his or her client to make sure that copies of any exhibits are forwarded to him or her … after all, everyone is working outside their comfort zone during the pandemic and things drop in the cracks, so to speak. By checking to make sure that he or she has copies in advance of anything he or she will be questioned about, the expert can help make sure the deposition is fruitful and not a waste of anyone’s time — and if the proper exhibits are not provided to the expert, at least he or she can truthfully say that they tried and therefore are not responsible for any lapses.

Similarly, if there are materials that the expert is asked to bring, such as any treatises that he or she relied upon in coming to an expert opinion, the expert should either copy and provide shorter materials (they can be provided to the attorney representing the expert’s client, who then will circulate them) or at least provide — well in advance — the citations for any longer works, so that anyone who wants to have a copy during the deposition has the chance to obtain them.

And then there are demonstrative exhibits which are things which are not evidence in and of themselves, but illustrate key evidentiary points. They are the equivalent of the graphics the nightly news puts up to illustrate important statistics or developments. These always have had to be created in advance … but now the expert may need to create them differently. What looks good in person may NOT look good when viewed on your MacBook Air’s camera. Test the demonstrative exhibits on the video conferencing platform you are using in advance and make sure they work.

Testimonial Preparation

Experts should always review their testimony in advance with the attorney representing their client. Yes, they can’t “script it,” and the expert (and attorney) have a legal and ethical obligation to assure that all testimony is truthful … but all that said, the lawyer and expert should go over in advance what issues the opposition is expected to ask about and some “basics” about testifying — e.g. to pause a moment before answering, in case the lawyer wants to object; to not extrapolate, but only answer the question that is asked; to not be afraid to ask for clarification of an unclear question; etc.

But bear in mind that a Zoom (or the equivalent) deposition will present challenges an in-person deposition does not, such as the possibility of the deposition “freezing” at an inopportune moment or losing connection momentarily. Discuss with the lawyer representing the expert’s client how to deal with those eventualities — does the expert ask for the question to be restated after the interference or break? Does the expert leave a longer-than-normal pause before answering, to make sure the lawyer has time to object? And so forth. Assume there will be connectivity issues at inopportune moments and plan for them, so that the expert and his/her client’s attorney are reading (so to speak) from the same playbook. Do not assume that the lawyer representing your client will always be able to object in real time to problematic questions.

During the Deposition

We’ve alluded to this above, but experience teaches us that Zoom, Microsoft Go To Meeting, and similar software will have problems in practice: internet connections stutter or drop out, there are buffering issues, etc. During all depositions, the deponent — including an expert witness — should not hesitate to ask the examining attorney to restate or repeat a question. But this goes doubly for remote depositions, due to software and connectivity issues. When in doubt, the expert should ask opposing counsel to restate or rephrase his or her question.

In Conclusion

Compare a Zoom call with a friend or family member with talking with that individual face-to-face. You may find it more challenging and less rewarding. There may be parts of the conversation which were not clear or garbled. That’s for an informal, “no stakes” call. Now imagine what it might be like for a formal, high stakes call, such as you will find in a remote deposition. Plan for the inevitable Zoom-related issues in advance.

Money

Demonstrative Evidence: A Picture or Chart is Worth a Thousand Words

We’ve all heard the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand worlds.” And most of us are familiar with the idea that there are multiple different modes of learning — that is, that people process information in different ways, and that while there are certainly verbal learners, or people who learn best by reading the written or hearing the spoken word, there are people who learn best in other ways, such as visual learners, who learn best through images or pictures.

These concepts are why demonstrative evidence is your friend in court — it’s a way to empower your expert and leverage the investment your client made in hiring them.

Black’s Law Dictionary online defines demonstrative evidence as “real evidence that doesn’t depend on a testimony as it can be seen by the jury and the court.” Other legal dictionaries and treatises definite it similarly. The key part of this definition is “can be seen by the jury and the court” — that is, it is visual evidence, whether in the form of a photograph, a schematic, a chart or graph, a model, or some other graphic representation. It can be tremendously powerful and can make or break your expert’s testimony.

Here’s the thing about demonstrative evidence: as the very term implies, it “demonstrates” something. It’s NOT fact evidence — you need that separately — but it is a way to illustrate, highlight, or call out what is important. It’s the judicial equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation: a way to emphasize what should be emphasized. That means that while it ultimately needs to tie back to — and be supported by — authenticated documentary or other fact-based evidence, or reliable witness testimony, it can and should take liberties with presentation, so that the point you want to get across is driven home with all the subtlety of a presidential campaign ad.

Judges and Jurors Love Show-and-Tell

Before getting to the practical reasons why demonstrative evidence is valuable, start with a basic concept: judges are human. They are humans who spend six, seven, or eight hours per day listening to people talk, and talk, and talk. They get — to be blunt — bored. Don’t believe it? Think about how long you can listen to strangers jabber on about situations or occurrences you have no personal knowledge of or stake in. For example, think back to the last time you were at a party and were cornered by someone who described their vacation to you practically minute by minute, or by someone who obviously thought their job in risk-assessment or logistics was as fascinating to you as it is to them (or, to be fair, think about the deer-in-headlights look in the eyes of a non-lawyer you cornered at a party and subjected to a blow-by-blow description of your last trial). Bringing out photographs or other graphic evidence will get judges to sit up and take notice in a way that another thousand words of “expert-ese” will not.

And what goes for judges goes doubly for jurors, since they (unlike judges) often have no background, experience, or context to help them understand your expert’s testimony — but they can look out and understand a photograph or simple chart. Bringing out demonstrative evidence can help prevent jurors’ eyes from glazing over, which is critical, because if they tune your expert out, why even bother having the evidence in the first place.

Your expert simply can’t get his or her point across if no one is listening to him or her. Since  by the time you get to your expert, the court has typically been subjected to opening statements and a parade of fact witnesses to set the context, the judge and jurors have already used up most up of their attention span. Have mercy on them and make it easy for your expert: have the expert create and use demonstrative evidence.

Photographs: Show, Don’t Tell, What Something Looks Like

Many cases involve something’s appearance. It could be the condition of a car after an accident. It could be the contusions on the victim of domestic violence. It could be the damage to a building after a fire, or the shape a rental property is in after the tenant has moved out, or the condition of a poorly maintained staircase or walkway, etc. This is the easy and obvious case for the use of demonstrative evidence: instead of having your expert just narrate the situation (e.g. “the fire caused extensive charring to the fall behind and ceiling above the stove”), show it. The visual representation will be much more powerful and easier to grasp than any verbal narrative could possibly be.

Related cases involve comparisons between two places or objects. Say that you are defending a former commercial tenant being sued by the landlord for unpaid rent, and you want to show that the landlord failed in its duty to mitigate by asking an unreasonably high price to re-let the space. Your real estate expert could just orally describe the features of the premises in question and why they are less desirable than those of other spaces on the market at the same price — or (s)he could show and narrate photographs of the premises, showing its cramped, dark, awkward layout and contrasting it with photographs of other available restaurant space which is lighter and airier. Which approach do you think will be more effective?

A good rule of thumb is: if you can take photographs of what the expert is describing, take them and have the expert use them. And when we say “photographs,” we also mean X-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds, and so on. Essentially, if you can show what something looks like instead of just verbally describing it, it has far greater influence on the viewer. For example, if you have a personal injury case, what do you think will impact the jury more: your medical expert saying “the plaintiff had a compound fracture, which is a fracture where the skin is pierced by a broken bone,” or showing the jury a photograph of a bloody bone sticking out of the plaintiff’s leg?

The use of photographs crosses or blurs the line between actual fact and demonstrative evidence, so they will have to be authenticated by someone with personal knowledge — that is, the person who took them. And that means you need to lay the groundwork.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat & Repeat Again: Using Your Expert to Review Powerful Fact Evidence

You’ll generally have shown your photographs during your fact witness testimony. But there’s a limit to how many times you have your fact witnesses flash the same photos before opposing counsel objects or the judge him/herself tells you to move on. But if the photos are compelling, you’ll want to show them again and again — you’ll want to burn their images into the jurors’ eyes.

Have your experts show them again. There’s no real cognizable objection to the photos being shown again as your expert uses them to make some oh-so-expert-y point. You can use your expert not just for his or her expertise, but as an excuse to run your best and most affecting evidence under the fact finders’ noses again.

Graphics Which Show Spatial Relationships: Help the Fact Finder Envision What Was Where

Which is easier to understand: a map or drawing showing the location of buildings, cars, and/or people, or someone droning on and one about how “The first vehicle was in the outer northbound lane. The second vehicle was in the outer southbound lane. The second vehicle came around a 60-degree curve from the east and would have come into view of the first vehicle roughly 275 meters away . . .” etc.?

There is NO better way to show locations and spatial relations than graphically, so prepare the appropriate maps, drawings, or models (models are particularly valuable when there are three, not just two, dimensions in play — e.g. when height or elevation matters, too) for your expert and let him or her use them to show, simply, quickly, and unambiguously where the various players and pieces were. Obviously, you may need to prepare several demonstrative exhibits, to show locations at the start of an event, while it is occurring, and at the end, etc. But the goal is to be clear about what happened, so there’s no such thing as “overkill.” Either the situation is clear to the fact finder or it isn’t. If it is clear, then the effort and cost put into preparing the exhibits is well worth it. If it is not clear, then you didn’t prepare enough (or good enough) exhibits.

Blow-ups: Make the Small Big

Your expert may be testifying about fine or small points; for example, if you have a handwriting expert, he or she may be testifying about how a particular loop or curlicue differs from one hypothetical signature to another. It can be awfully hard to the fact finders to see something in the equivalent of 12-, 14-, 16-, 18 -, or even 24-point type, which is about how large most of us sign papers. On the other hand, if you blow the relevant signature elements up to 4”, 5” or taller, then everyone can see and follow your expert’s discussion of the key similarities or differences.

The same principal applies whenever any key elements are themselves small. For example, say you have a product liability case, and the part of the device/product that failed is ½” or 1” long — have a photographic reproduction of it at 10x normal scale, so that the judge on his/her bench, or the jurors in their box, can actually see it.

“Look here!”—Highlight the Critical Elements

Another advantage of demonstrative evidence is the ability to add highlighting, emphasis, even arrows pointing to the important elements or details. Not only can you blow up any small details, but you can pick them out in color or bold type, circle them, and have an arrow pointing straight at what you really want the fact finders to notice. There is no need or reason to be subtle: think about being as obvious as the OxyClean or ShamWow guys hawking their wares. You want whatever is important to “POP!” like the tagline on a late-night infomercial.

Hire Professionals—Amateur Hour Does Your Client No Favors, and Saving a Few Hundred Dollars is a False Economy

The author spent 18 years in the publishing industry. He’s personally conversant enough with several graphic and layout programs as to be able to, with a straight face, claim he can do book layout, create catalogs, or even illustrate the average math book or business text. But he’s also smart enough to know that does not, in any way, shape, or form, make him a graphic artist. The difference between your author’s best efforts and those of a professional is the same as the difference between a bright pro se litigant’s efforts and your own abilities, as an educated, trained, and experienced attorney, at litigation … which is to say there is no comparison.

Don’t think that you and your expert (unless he or she is part of a larger organization with its own internal graphics department or unit) are an adequate substitute for a professional graphic artist. Assuming there’s serious money at stake — and if there wasn’t, you wouldn’t be hiring an expert in the first place, would you? — it’s worth the investment to hire a professional to create your demonstrative evidence. Layout, presentation, emphasis … the pro will know how to make these and other elements work for your case in a way that you, or a subject matter expert, simply won’t. Think about the difference between a slick pharma, perfume, or major insurance company ad, and the ads aired on local cable TV by your nearby used-car dealer — that’s the sort of qualitative difference we’re talking about.

Summary—Demonstrative Evidence is Often What Separates the Amateurs from The Professionals

Anyone can talk to another person — e.g.. take direct testimony of an expert — and get the basic point across. But can you sell that point (and let’s be honest: litigation is selling your client’s point of view)? Pros can sell; amateurs don’t.

 

Utilizing Handwriting Experts: They’re Only as Good as the Samples You Provide

A forensic document examiner is better known as a handwriting expert. They come into play when one person says that another person signed some document — a contract, a lease, a will, a power of attorney, a promissory note, etc. — but the second person, or his or her representative, denies that he or she did. At that point, it may be necessary to have an expert examine the purported, or claimed, signature, to see if it is — or is not — that person’s signature.

How do they do this? They compare the purported signature to known or uncontested examples of that person’s signature, to see whether, and to what extent, they match. That means that the samples, known as “exemplars,” provided to the expert are critical: as in the old computer-related acronym GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out,” poor or inadequate samples will result in a weak, erroneous, or easily neutralized (by the other side) expert opinion.

What Do Experts Look for When Analyzing a Signature?

First, a quick primer on what forensic document examiners look for when comparing signatures. Obviously, they look at the shape of the letters — does the “A” in the purported or questioned signature match the “A” in the known exemplars of that person’s signature, for example. But that’s only the start of the analysis: they also look at (among other things) —

  • The slant of the signature: does it slant right or left, upward or downward?
  • The weight or thickness of the lines
  • Whether it rests on, above, or below the signature line, and how far below the line any extensions of letters (like the lower part of a “p” or “g”) go
  • Do the loops or curls appear to have been drawn counterclockwise or clockwise?
  • Where are the starts and stops in the signature?
  • How “fluid” is the signature, and does it appear to have been drawn in one smooth move, like a well-practiced signature would be, or does it look like there were hesitations, as if someone were trying to copy something they are unfamiliar with?
  • The handedness — was it evidently made by a righty or lefty?

There are many elements to the analysis, and two signatures can look superficially the same but yet show significant inconsistencies on deeper examination. That’s why good exemplars are critical: you need samples that will let the expert do a deep, detailed analysis of multiple elements of the signature.

People Don’t Sign Things the Same Way Every Time

Complicating the handwriting expert’s job is that people do not sign things the same way every time. To begin with, people sign differently depending on how “formal” or “informal” the document is. We take more care on “weighty” documents that affect our rights than we do on documents carrying few or no consequences, and that means that we tend to take more time signing, and have a more legible signature, on formal (important) documents than on informal (less or unimportant ones). Think about signing an apartment lease or contract to buy a home or your will. Now contrast that with scrawling your signature on the receipt for take-out pizza or even the sign-in sheet in a courtroom and you’ll understand the difference. Is your signature the same in these different contexts? Almost certainly not.

Second, we tend to sign things we sign all the time differently than we sign one-off or uncommon documents. With things we sign all the time — cover letters; checks — we run on autopilot; with less-familiar documents, we often think about them more, and that thinking introduces a hesitation into, and therefore alters, our signature.

Third, the amount of space you have to sign will alter your signature: if you normally have an expansive signature but are now cramming it into a form’s small signature box, that will change letter forms and spacing.

Fourth, signatures change over time. Just as we are not static or unchanging — we learn, we grow, we change — so, too, does our signature change over time. Look at a document you signed 10 or 20 years ago and compare it to how you sign today — it’s virtually certain that even your inexpert eyes will see differences.

Fifth, the conditions under which we sign affects how we sign: when you’re in a rush, or tired, or had too much coffee or some wine, you will sign differently than on those occasions you are unhurried, unrested, and unaffected by what you’ve been drinking.

And sixth — we’re not robots. We simply do not do things the exact same way every time, even when we do something several times in quick succession under the same or similar circumstances. Take out your pen and sign your name five times; even though the five signatures should be very similar, they are not 100% identical. That’s because we’re human, not Siri or Alexa.

What Makes for a Good Exemplar?

Because signatures change over time, you want to provide your expert with exemplars that are as contemporaneous as possible with the signature being examined. If, for example, someone claims that your client signed a document 20 years ago giving that person a life estate in a home (which was the issue in the author’s most recent experience with forensic document examiners), then you want to provide your expert with signature samples from 20 years ago, or as close to that time frame as possible.

Because we sign formal and informal documents differently, if the questioned signature is on a formal document — something like a deed, a lease, a will, etc. — you want to provide samples of similarly formal documents. And conversely, if the questioned signature is on an informal document, be sure to provide informal exemplars.

Because we tend to sign document types we sign day-in and day-out differently than we sign unusual or uncommon documents, try to provide exemplars of the same, or at least similar, type(s) of document(s). And because the amount of space for signature affects how we sign, try to provide exemplars which have similarly sized signature lines or blocks.

Quantity Has a Quality All Its Own

Remember, our signatures are never identical, even when we sign two documents in close succession: there is always some natural variation. In a sense, none of us have “a” single signature; what we think of as our signature is really the current “average” of how we sign documents. Sometimes the letters of our signature will be slightly larger, sometimes slightly smaller; sometimes closer together, sometimes wider apart; sometimes more legible, sometimes less; etc. Any one sample of your signature will almost certainly not match 100% any other single sample. Therefore, you want to provide multiple samples, so that as the expert examines exemplar after exemplar, he or she can derive the common elements and compare those fundamentals of the person’s signature to the signature in question.

But Don’t Forget Quality

The expert needs to be able to see the signature’s elements clearly. Originals are better than copies, since there is no “blurring” due to the copying process and certain aspects (like, for example, the pressure used by the signor when signing) are more easily seen in originals. If you can’t provide an adequate number of originals, provide the best-quality copies you can — for example, “first generation” copies of originals, not copies of copies, since with each successive copying, detail and crispness is lost.

Summing It Up: What You Should Provide Your Expert as Exemplars

When trying to determine if person A did or not sign a certain document, provide as many samples as possible of how A signed similar documents (similar level of formality or import; similar type of document; similar space for his or her signature) at the same or a similar point in time as the document in contention. The more, the better: 60, 70, or more exemplars are not too many, because you want your expert to be able to confidently state that he or she has identified the fundamental elements of that person’s signature, explain them to the court, and state whether those same elements are (or are not) found in the questioned document.

A failure to provide enough, or relevant enough, or sufficiently high-quality exemplars will leave your expert vulnerable on cross examination. Opposing counsel who knows what they are doing will be able undercut your expert’s conclusions by showing that the exemplars are from sufficiently different types of documents or circumstances or time periods that they are not relevant; or perhaps they will show that there were insufficient exemplars as to draw firm conclusions; or that the exemplars are of such low quality that no fair comparison can be made.

No matter their academic qualifications or experience, a forensic document examiner’s opinion is only as good as the samples they have to work with — give them what they need to help your case.

Zoom Meeting

How to Conduct an Online Deposition of an Expert Witness

Social distancing makes cramming at least four (deposing attorney; other side’s attorney; expert witness; court reporter) and often more people into a conference room for hours on end inadvisable, even when it’s legal (i.e. when your state’s executive orders aren’t outright banning having so many unrelated persons in a room together). We don’t know how long this will go on, but smart money says that minimizing in-person contact will be with us for at least another year or more, until there’s a vaccine (knock wood). Under the current circumstances, much business — including legal business (up to and including hearings and trials) — is being conducted via Zoom or its videoconferencing equivalent. Even after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, there are good reasons why remote depositions will often make sense, such as minimizing travel time and therefore legal and expert expenses, or being better able to accommodate various parties’ disparate schedules, and opening up the universe of potential experts to ones who are not local.

For all these reasons, deposing experts by Zoom is becoming a must-have skill for attorneys’ toolboxes. Everything not affected by not having the participants in the same room remains the same: e.g. how to qualify experts, how to lay the foundation for their deposition, the questions to ask, the usual reservation of all objections other than as to form of question, etc. That said, there are significant adjustments you’ll have to make to the usual expert deposition “script.”

Most of the additional questions or instructions come from the fact that you have less control over a remote deposition than one conducted in-person — you only see what the laptop camera sees, and so the expert could have colleagues, confederates, representatives of the opposing party, or others right there in the room with him or her, or otherwise feeding the expert answers or suggestions on an iPad or tablet or via a separate (and invisible to you) window on the computer or the expert’s phone. If you want to imagine what the expert could be up to, think about your last Zoom meeting and whether you were watching anything else, doing any work, or talking to or corresponding with anyone else while you were in the meeting. Now multiply that by 10, since the expert and the party hiring him or her has a real incentive to cheat, not just boredom causing one to multitask or seek diversions.

Additional Instructions

For You:

  • Make sure all parties share all exhibits at least two business days in advance, so they can be pre-marked.
  • Make sure that everyone, including the deponent, has a full hard copy of all exhibits in advance.
  • Test the “meeting” and the recording of it ahead of time (and not just 10 minutes before showtime; test it days or a week ahead, to allow time to work the bugs out) — nothing is worse than conducting the greatest expert deposition of your career but then finding out that nothing recorded.

For the Court Reporter: Make sure that you confirm not only that the deposition will be recorded but that the video will only show the expert being deposed. As vain as you may be, you don’t need your face muddying the videographic record.

For the Expert: The following should be stated at the outset and agreed to by the expert and also repeated or reiterated as necessary; see the “Additional Questions” below, which indicate places where you might reiterate certain instructions.

  • “The device on which you are participating, whether computer or phone, should have no other windows or applications open or running while this deposition is ongoing, unless and only if I have specifically given you permission to use other software or another application and have identified the software or application you may use.”
  • “You should not have any other computers or telecommunication devices ‘on’ and with you. Please turn off any other devices or remove them from the room during this deposition unless you identify the devices to me and I give you permission to have them with you and ‘on’.”

(In some cases — e.g. an expert who’s also a parent and needs to be reachable by his/her offsite children or their caregiver — you’ll have to allow them to have a phone with them and on. But in that case, you can ask them to position the phone so it is the camera’s field of vision, so that you can see if they are using or checking it.)

  • “You should not have any chat boxes or ‘messenger’ apps open at this time and if you do, please close them.”
  • “You should not have anyone else in the room with you during this deposition other than the party hiring you or representatives of that party, or the attorney(ies) for the party hiring you. If there is any other person or persons in the room with you, even family members, please ask them to leave at this time.”
  • “If anyone else comes into the room during this deposition, you are to notify me at once.”
  • “If you are using a laptop, tablet, or phone for this deposition, please pick it up and pan it around the room, so I can see the entirety of the room.”
  • “Please adjust the camera on the device you are using so that I can see your entire upper body, including your hands.”

Further Questions

Before you launch into anything substantive, you have to get the following questions in to protect the integrity of the process — feel free to change the exact wording to better capture your own style. Where there is something that you have to “fill in” so it’s accurate for your deposition — like the name of the software or app being used — we’ll put it in square brackets in italics.

  • “I want to confirm that we are engaged in a deposition and that we are doing so remotely; is that correct?”
  • “I also want to confirm that we are taking your deposition remotely due to [insert reason; e.g. COVID-19 and social distancing]; is that correct?”
  • “Are you aware that the parties have agreed to take your deposition remotely via [name of software or app being used]?”
  • “I want to confirm that we are using [name of software or app] to conduct your deposition; is that correct?”
  • “What kind of device are you using to participate in this deposition? Please identify it as precisely as possible.”
  • “Do you have any other windows or applications open, including but not limited to messenger apps or email?”
  • “If you have any other windows or applications open, what are they?”
  • (If they have any other windows or apps open, once they have identified them, reiterate the instruction to close them)
  • ‘Do you or anyone in the room with you have any other computer or telecommunication devices with you at this time? If so, please identify them to me.”
  • “If you have any other computers or telecommunications devices with you, are they currently ‘on’?”(If they have other devices, reiterate instructions to turn them off and/or remove them.)
  • “Has anyone asked you to have any messenger software or apps open during this deposition, and, if so, who?”
  • “Is any [insert name of software or app being used for the deposition; e.g. Zoom) ‘chatbox’ open? (Reiterate instructions to close all such software, apps, or chat boxes.)
  • “Where are you physically located? Please identify the state, county, municipality or unincorporated area, address, and the location or room within that address. Be as specific as possible.”
  • “Is anyone else physically in the room with you? If so, please identify them.”
  • “Will you immediately tell me if anyone enters or leaves the room?” (If there is anyone else in the room, reiterate instruction to have all other persons leave, unless the only other person(s) are the other party(ies) and/or the other party’s(ies’) attorney[s].)
  • “If I ask you a question, do you agree that you will not check your email, your texts, any messenger apps, any social media, or otherwise communicate with anyone — including counsel for the party hiring you or that lawyer’s client — to answer the question?”

Remember: the purpose of an expert deposition is only half exploratory — to learn what the expert knows, thinks, and will testify to. The other half is to create record which can use to pin the expert down or impeach him or her. If you don’t do that — if you don’t create a clear, unequivocal record  —you will have wasted your time and your client’s money.

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Lawyer Allowed to Testify as Expert Witness in Fraud Prosecution

Lawyers (some more than others) are experts in the law, but they rarely testify as expert witnesses. Legal malpractice cases, in which expert testimony is needed to establish a lawyer’s standard of care, provide one of the few opportunities for a lawyer to testify as an expert.

But lawyers in malpractice cases do not explain the law to juries. Rather, they explain the actions a prudent lawyer should take or avoid in light of prevailing professional standards.

In most cases, lawyers may not testify as experts on the law. The only expert who can explain the law to the jury is the presiding judge. The judge provides that explanation through jury instructions, not testimony.

A federal criminal case spotlights an unusual instance in which a lawyer was allowed to explain fiduciary duties imposed by state law, the breach of which was relevant to a federal prosecution for fraud. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected an appellate challenge to the admission of that expert testimony.

Facts of the Case

Renee Tartaglione was charged with 53 crimes related to defrauding a community clinic and for failing to report income earned from the fraudulent acts. Tartaglione, described in the press as a “member of a longtime Philadelphia political dynasty,” was the president of the board of the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that Tartaglione caused the nonprofit clinic to pay exorbitant rent for buildings that she and her husband controlled. Prosecutors offered evidence that she used the rent proceeds to remodel her own home and to fund her lifestyle.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Tartaglione was responsible for a bogus drug treatment program aimed at low income people. The crimes were charged in federal court because the clinic primarily served Medicaid recipients.

The jury convicted Taraglione after a nineteen-day trial. Noting that Taraglione had betrayed the public trust by misappropriating money from a taxpayer-funded program, the judge sentenced Taraglione to 82 months in prison. She appealed, challenging the prosecution’s use of a lawyer as an expert witness.

Expert Testimony Regarding Non-Governing Law

The prosecution called the Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Mark Pacella, as an expert witness. While a prosecutor who testifies for another prosecutor might have an inherent bias, the question of bias is usually for a jury to consider. Potential bias, by itself, does not typically disqualify expert witnesses, although on rare occasions judges have excluded experts because of their financial interest in the case or because their history of extreme bias renders their opinions unreliable.

Pacella “explained the legal and regulatory framework for Pennsylvania charitable nonprofit corporations, including the fiduciary duties imposed on board members and directors of such organizations.” Since the judge could have explained fiduciary duties in jury instructions, the question before the appellate court was whether the expert testimony violated the rule that lawyers cannot generally testify as experts in the law.

While recognizing the general rule, the court noted that an exception permits legal experts to testify about “non-governing law” if the testimony will assist the jury. The exception usually applies to the law of a foreign country.

Rule 26.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allows a court to consider relevant testimony about foreign law. At least one legal scholar has bemoaned the use of legal experts to testify about domestic law that a trial judge is fully capable of understanding and explaining.

The appellate court nevertheless concluded that a “non-governing law” exception to the general rule covers “applicable legal duties, especially when those non-governing laws help explain fraudulent intent.” Pacella explained the clinic’s Articles of Incorporation and the legal distinction between a for-profit and a charitable nonprofit corporation. The court decided that the testimony did not cover governing law.

Expert Testimony Regarding Fiduciary Duties

More troubling was Pacella’s testimony about the “fiduciary duties of care and loyalty applicable to directors and officers of such organizations under Pennsylvania law.” The court decided that those duties were not “governing law” because they arose under Pennsylvania law and Tartaglione was not charged with violating Pennsylvania law. The court thought it was noteworthy that Pacella testified that Pennsylvania does not criminalize the breach of a fiduciary duty.

The court’s analysis is questionable. Since prosecutors used Pacella’s testimony to argue that a breach of state law fiduciary duties evidenced a violation of federal law, Pennsylvania law “governed” the very conduct that prosecutors deemed fraudulent.

It is difficult to understand the relevance of Pacella’s testimony if not to define legal duties that governed Tartaglione, the breach of which gave rise, at least in part, to federal charges. The court acknowledged that the testimony was offered to support the argument that Tartaglione’s breach of a governing fiduciary duty proved her intent to commit fraud.

The court cited no on-point precedent, probably because most trial judges do not allow prosecutors to call another prosecutor as an expert witness to bolster their case. The court likened Pacella’s testimony to background evidence about scientific principles, but the issue was whether a lawyer can be called as an expert to explain the law, not whether a scientist can be called as an expert to explain science. If the court is the only expert on the law, it is difficult to understand why the explanation of Pennsylvania law governing Tartaglione’s fiduciary duties should not have come from the court rather than an expert witness.

Arkansas Allows Chiropractor to Provide Expert Opinion About the Need for Surgery

The insurance industry has long disparaged the testimony of chiropractors in personal injury cases. Courts nevertheless agree that chiropractors may give expert testimony about the cause of injuries for which they provide chiropractic treatment as well as the necessity of that treatment.

Courts are less likely to agree whether chiropractors are qualified to testify about the causation of injuries for which medical treatment is provided or the necessity of that treatment. A recent decision in Arkansas rejected a blanket rule and decided that the expert’s qualifications depend on the expert.

Facts of the Case

On a rainy day in 2010, Karen Elder visited a Dollar General store in Mt. Ida, Arkansas. She slipped on the wet sidewalk outside the store’s entrance. Elder reported her fall to an assistant manager.

Elder had preexisting back pain for which she had received chiropractic treatment since 2004. After her fall, Elder had neck, back, and shoulder surgery. In 2013, she sued Dollar General for negligence, alleging that Dollar General breached its duty to maintain its premises in a safe condition.

Elder intended to have her chiropractor, Eric Carson, testify about the cause of her injuries, the permanence of her disability, and the reasonableness of her medical bills. Dollar General moved to exclude much of Dr. Carson’s testimony. The motion was denied and the case went to trial.

Trial Evidence

Elder testified that the weather was misting and that she was jogging toward the entrance to avoid getting wet. She encountered a slick area on the sidewalk and fell. She testified that the slick area was not covered by a mat and that no signs warned her that parts of the concrete sidewalk were slippery.

One portion of the sidewalk has a rough surface and is presumably not as slippery, but another portion has a smooth surface. Elder relied on a safety expert to establish that the smooth portion of the sidewalk was unreasonably dangerous and that the danger was not obvious.

A former assistant manager testified that she had slipped on the sidewalk when it was wet and that she had seen at least four other people slip. She alerted her manager and the landlord about the unsafe condition and expressed concern that it might lead to a customer injury. She was told that it would be taken care of, but no action was taken.

Over objection, Dr. Carson testified that Elder’s injuries and the medical treatment Elder received for them, including her surgeries, were caused by her fall. Dollar General offered the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon that her surgeries were related to a degenerative medical condition and not to her fall.

The jury found in Elder’s favor and returned a verdict of $700,000. Dollar General appealed, arguing that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify that Elder’s surgery was caused by injuries she sustained in her fall.

Competence of Chiropractor to Testify About Causation

Elder supplemented its discovery responses to disclose Dr. Carson’s anticipated causation testimony. Dollar General claimed to be surprised by those opinions and asked for a continuance during the trial so it could pursue additional discovery. The supreme court agreed with the trial court that the request for a continuance came too late, given that the opinions were disclosed almost three weeks before the trial.

A more troubling question was whether Dr. Carson was competent to testify about causation. There were two related issues of causation in Elder’s case. The first is whether her fall at Dollar General caused her to suffer an injury. The second is whether the medical (as opposed to chiropractic) treatment she received was caused by injuries she suffered in the fall.

Dollar General agreed that Dr. Carson was qualified to testify that injuries he actually treated were caused by the fall and that he provided necessary treatment for those injuries. Dollar General contended that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify about the necessity of treatment provided by medical doctors.

The supreme court disagreed with the proposition that “a chiropractor may not testify as to the causal need for surgical procedures that a chiropractor may not perform.” The Arkansas precedent upon which that argument was based held that no foundation had been laid for the chiropractor’s testimony that a patient had a permanent disability. That precedent did not establish a blanket rule.

The court decided that the admissibility of a chiropractor’s opinion requires a case-by-case assessment of a chiropractor’s training and experience. Dr. Carson had extensive training in the fields of orthopedics and neurology. The trial court was satisfied that his training in those areas was similar to the training of a medical doctor.

Dr. Carson’s experience included the treatment of hundreds of patients who suffered from traumatic injuries. He acknowledged that he does not perform surgery, but he regularly diagnoses injuries and makes an informed judgment about whether the injury would respond to chiropractic care or would be better treated by a medical doctor.

The combination of Dr. Carson’s training and experience qualified him to opine that Elder’s injuries were caused by her fall, whether or not he treated them. That he was not trained as a medical doctor went to his credibility, not to the admissibility of his causation testimony.

Competence of Chiropractor to Testify About Necessity of Treatment

Dollar General next argued that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify about the necessity of Elder’s medical treatment. Whether surgeries were related to the fall or to preexisting conditions was an issue in the case.

The supreme court noted that the reasonableness of treatment (which must generally be established to support the inclusion of medical expenses in a verdict) was not contested. Dr. Carson might not have been qualified to testify about the reasonableness of the medical treatment, but his training and experience qualified him to testify that the medical treatment was necessary. Since he was competent to testify that the fall caused the condition for which Elder was treated, he was also competent to testify that she needed the treatment she received.

 

Juries May Not Base Guilty Verdicts on Unreasonable Disregard of Expert Testimony

The Indiana Supreme Court began its opinion in Payne v. State with the observation that the “criminal legal system rests on the assumption that humans are rational agents of free will with the ability to exercise conscious choice in their everyday actions.” Whether that assumption is accurate is hotly debated by philosophers and neuroscientists. There is much about the mind and the concept of self that we do not understand, but judges are comforted by long-held assumptions that, if abandoned, would undermine the foundations of criminal punishment.

Putting aside the debate about free will, it is commonly understood that some people, at least, are compelled by irrational beliefs to behave unlawfully. Those people are sometimes said to be insane, although many states have abandoned that term.

The criminal justice system is premised on the belief that serious punishment should be reserved for people who choose to commit a crime despite their knowledge that it is wrong to do so. Modern legal thought generally shields defendants from criminal punishment when, at the time they engage in unlawful conduct, they are suffering from a mental disease or defect that deprives them of the ability to control their actions or to understand that their actions are wrong.

The tests for legal responsibility (or “insanity” in those states that still use the term) vary from state to state. In Indiana, an accused is not legally responsible for conduct that would otherwise be criminal “if, as a result of mental disease or defect, he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct at the time of the offense.”

Expert Testimony and Proof of Responsibility

Mental illness is typically proved by expert testimony. When a defense is based on the accused’s mental disease or defect, both the prosecution and the defense typically call an expert witness to opine whether the accused meets the relevant legal standard.

In some cases, however, mental illness and its impact on the defendant’s perception of reality is so obvious that all the experts agree that the legal standard is met. Those cases often result in a civil commitment based on the need to protect society from a dangerous person.

In Payne v. State, all the experts agreed that Payne was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, but the prosecution nevertheless took the case to trial and obtained a conviction. The question before the Indiana Supreme Court was whether jurors are free to disregard the unanimous view of expert witnesses when they decide whether a defendant is responsible for a criminal act.

Facts of the Case

Jesse Payne was arrested for burning down two covered bridges in 2002 and 2005 and for attempting to burn a third bridge. A judge determined that Payne was incompetent to stand trial, presumably because his mental illness rendered him incapable of understanding the proceedings or assisting in his defense. In 2016, the court decided that Payne had regained competence and the prosecution resumed.

Payne defended the charge on the ground that, when the crimes occurred, he was incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct. Indiana persists in referring to that defense as an “insanity defense.”

Pursuant to Indiana law, the court appointed three neutral experts — two psychiatrists and a psychologist — to evaluate Payne and to determine his mental status at the time the alleged crimes were committed. All three experts agreed that Payne “suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder, rendering him unable to distinguish right from wrong” in 2002 and 2005.

Notwithstanding the unanimous opinions of the experts, and not satisfied with the fact that Payne had lost his freedom for eleven years before being declared competent to stand trial, the prosecution took Payne to trial. The prosecution argued that Payne’s demeanor proved that he knew he was doing something wrong. The jury evidently agreed with that argument and found Payne guilty. The Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that the jury was entitled to give the demeanor evidence greater weight than the unanimous expert opinions and affirmed his conviction.

Indiana Precedent

Appellate courts rarely second-guess a jury verdict. It is the jury’s function, not the court’s, to weigh the evidence. Juries are entitled to disbelieve witnesses, including expert witnesses.

But juries must still base their decisions on evidence, not on a sense of outrage that a crime might go unpunished if they vote to acquit a defendant who does not have the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong. The unwillingness of juries to let bad acts go unpunished makes the “insanity defense” a defense of last resort. Yet there are times when the evidence compels a finding that the defendant was not legally responsible for his actions, even if the jury chooses not to believe the obvious.

The supreme court noted that flaws in an expert’s opinion about the defendant’s mental status, combined with evidence of a defendant’s demeanor at the time the crime was committed, might reasonably permit the jury to find a defendant guilty. The primary Indiana precedent involved a defendant who had carefully planned a crime for weeks and then took steps to conceal evidence of the crime to avoid apprehension. Those facts, the court thought, could convince a jury that the defendant understood that it was wrong to commit the crime, given inconsistencies in the experts’ opinions.

Of course, failing to understand that conduct is wrong is not inconsistent with making a plan to engage in that conduct. A person might be driven by schizophrenia and paranoia to plan a crime without appreciating that the criminal conduct is morally wrong.

Concealing evidence might be seen as proof that the defendant knew the conduct could lead to punishment, but a desire to avoid consequences is not the same as appreciating that conduct is morally wrong. “Demeanor evidence” may therefore be an ambiguous ground upon which to base a rejection of uncontradicted expert testimony.

Expert Opinions and Demeanor Evidence in Payne’s Case

Regardless of the merit of Indiana precedent, the supreme court deemed it to be inapplicable. The court recognized that experts are “central to a determination of insanity.” The experts agreed that Payne’s history of paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder was longstanding and well documented. There was no evidence that Payne had been faking the condition before, during, or after he committed the acts of arson.

When expert opinions are in conflict or when there is reason to discount them, juries are free to choose among conflicting opinions or to reject them all. While “conflicting diagnoses, inadequate document review, deficient psychiatric evaluations” and similar flaws in the expert opinions might allow a jury to disregard those opinions, none of those flaws were present in Payne’s case. Nothing in the expert testimony gave the jury any factual basis for concluding that Payne did not meet the Indiana definition of insanity.

Nor did the prosecution’s reliance on “demeanor evidence” justify a verdict that disregarded the unanimous expert opinions. Dr. Jeffrey Huttinger explained that Payne’s demeanor, though “superficially normal to a casual observer,” was consistent with schizophrenia when his actions were “driven by some type of delusion.”

The prosecution relied on evidence that Payne set the fires late at night, a choice made — in the prosecution’s view — to avoid detection. The prosecution also argued that Payne lied when he told the police that fuel in his car was for camping and that he used convenience store receipts in an attempt to establish a false alibi. The prosecution suggested that the jury could view its evidence as establishing a consciousness of guilt.

The supreme court recognized that the jury was required to consider the totality of the evidence. The prosecution’s demeanor evidence was ambiguous. People who are paranoid and delusional might well operate in secrecy and tell lies. In fact, that conduct might be a product of their mental illness.

In the supreme court’s view, the prosecution’s demeanor evidence did not outweigh the unanimous opinion of three mental health experts that Payne was incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct. Given the weight to which the expert opinions were entitled, the probative value of the prosecution’s demeanor evidence “effectively dissolves.” The court therefore concluded that “not guilty by reason of insanity” was the only verdict a reasonable jury could return.

The supreme court observed that its judgment is not a “get out of jail free” card. Indiana law requires a civil commitment proceeding to follow an acquittal on the ground of insanity. If Payne still suffers from a mental illness which makes him a danger to society — and he might not, given the prosecution’s argument that treatment restored his competence to stand trial — he will be subject to civil commitment until he no longer poses a danger.

Lessons Learned

The culture wars that divide America include a battle over expert opinions. Some people reject all expert opinions, whether they pertain to global warming or the dangers of coronavirus, as “elitist.” Those people believe that expert opinions are entitled to no greater deference than the opinions of people who have no expertise at all. That battle, coupled with the insurance industry’s relentless effort to portray all experts as “hired guns,” has tended to make juries less open to the opinions of experts who are more knowledgeable than lay jurors.

Judges routinely take cases away from civil juries because they believe that no reasonable jury could disbelieve the evidence presented by defense experts. The willingness to disregard the judgment of jurors in civil cases, where only money is at stake, should equally protect defendants in criminal cases, where freedom is at stake. When jurors refuse to believe unassailable expert opinions about a defendant’s mental health, it is the judiciary’s duty to set aside the jury’s unreasonable verdict and to acquit the defendant.

Fake

Expert’s Demonstrative Exhibit Held Inadmissible Because It Was Based on Speculation Rather Than Science

Douglas Shaneyfelt was driving at night on a state highway in Ohio. Robert Byram was backing his tractor-trailer into his driveway. Byram’s vehicle was blocking both lanes of traffic when Shaneyfelt began braking. His pickup truck slammed into the side of Byram’s semi.

Byram contended that he was not negligent because he checked the road for oncoming traffic and saw none before he began to back into his driveway. Byram broke no law. Whether it is prudent for a trucker to back into a driveway from a highway at night was a question for the jury. The jury found in favor of Byram.

Shaneyfelt moved for a new trial, contending that he was prejudiced by the computer-simulated images that Byram’s expert witness used as demonstrative evidence. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for a new trial. The Ohio Court of Appeals held that the exhibit was inadmissible but reversed the order for a new trial after finding that the exhibit was not prejudicial.

Demonstrative Evidence

Byram called Ashley Dunn as an accident reconstruction expert. Dunn prepared three computer-simulated images to show how Byram’s truck would have appeared to Shaneyfelt at a distance of 600 feet, 400 feet, and 250 feet.

Shaneyfelt complained that the images were not produced in discovery but were only disclosed four days before trial. The trial court agreed with Shaneyfelt that the untimely production of the images violated the court’s discovery order.

The trial court nevertheless concluded that under Ohio law, discovery violations should not result in the exclusion of evidence unless the violation caused material prejudice to the opposing party. To determine whether the violation was prejudicial, the court allowed the expert to testify, subject to cross-examination.

After the trial, the court determined that the demonstrative exhibits were inadmissible because there was no evidence that they accurately represented Shaneyfelt’s view of the accident. Specifically, Dunn did not measure the brightness of the lights and reflectors on Byram’s tractor-trailer or the brightness of Shaneyfelt’s headlights. Without making that measurement, Dunn could only hazard a guess about how the scene might have appeared to Shaneyfelt.

The court reasoned that Dunn’s demonstrative evidence was “speculative and void of case-specific facts.” Because Dunn’s testimony misrepresented the exhibits as depicting an accurate view of the scene when he could not have known whether the exhibits were accurate, the testimony and related exhibits were prejudicial.

The trial court noted that Byram took a chance by producing the exhibits after the discovery deadline. The court granted a new trial and barred Byram from calling Dunn, or anyone in Dunn’s firm, as an expert witness in further proceedings. Byram appealed.

Appellate Analysis

In the absence of any measurement of headlight brightness, it was impossible to make a demonstrative exhibit that accurately displayed the scene as Shaneyfelt would have seen it. While Dunn relied on industry standards and studies to determine how bright the scene might have been, it is common knowledge that headlights do not always meet industry standards.

Bulbs tend to produce less light as they get older. Perhaps more importantly, dirty or cloudy headlight coverings reduce the brightness of headlights. No assumptions about industry standards can take the place of actual facts when preparing demonstrative evidence.

The court of appeals agreed with Shaneyfelt that the pdf exhibit he received four days before trial differed from the 40” by 30” exhibit that was displayed to the jury. The brightness of the lights in the trial exhibit had been enhanced.

Byram contended that the difference was caused by brightness settings on the printer used to print the pdf. However, the trial exhibit had a car dashboard superimposed over the simulated view that was missing from the pdf. The trial exhibit was obviously not the same exhibit disclosed to Shaneyfelt.

Regardless of the belated pretrial disclosure, the court of appeals agreed that the trial exhibit was inadmissible. Because Dunn did not measure the brightness of the lights shown on the exhibit, the representation of Shaneyfelt’s alleged view was based on speculation, not fact.

The appellate court nevertheless concluded that the improper exhibit was not prejudicial. The court found no evidence in the record that Byram’s decision to back a tractor-trailer into a driveway at night was negligent. The court noted that Shaneyfelt’s own expert agreed that Shaneyfelt’s headlines should have illuminated the truck when Shaneyfelt was 288 feet from the truck. The expert calculated stopping distances and concluded that, if Shaneyfelt had slammed on his brakes at the moment the truck became visible, he could have narrowly avoided the collision.

Lessons Learned

If the trial judge had excluded the exhibit before the jury saw it, there would be no need to guess about the verdict the jury might have returned if it had not been exposed to inadmissible evidence. That is what the judge should have done, although it is not clear that Shaneyfelt objected to the expert’s methodology (as opposed to the belated disclosure) prior to trial.

Demonstrative evidence can be a persuasive tool at trial. Images embed themselves in the minds of jurors more effectively than words. Experts may therefore provide a valuable service for lawyers when they prepare demonstrative exhibits.

But exhibits are evidence, and when they are prepared by experts, they are subject to the same rules of admissibility as other expert evidence. Demonstrative exhibits should have a basis in fact and should reflect the expert’s application of a reasonable methodology.

An exhibit that recreates an accident may be persuasive when an accident reconstruction engineer relies on physics and math to recreate an accident scene. An exhibit that is based on a guess as to how the accident scene might have appeared has no value at all. To assure that demonstrative exhibits are admissible, experts should use the same care when preparing exhibits that they use when preparing reports and formulating opinions.