Donald Trump may have celebrity status, but Ben Carson is the current frontrunner in a poll of GOP primary voters. The reasons that underlie his popularity as a presidential candidate, including the ability to gain the trust of his audience, also explain Dr. Carson’s success as an expert witness.
Before he began to campaign as a presidential candidate, Dr. Carson was the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital. He gained professional recognition as the first surgeon to perform a successful separation of twins who were conjoined at the head. Dr. Carson’s status as a renowned neurosurgeon made him a logical choice to testify as an expert witness in high dollar cases.
According to an article in The New York Times, Dr. Carson served as an expert in 20 to 30 cases, charging $500 to $750 per hour to review records and prepare opinions and $2,500 for a half day of testimony. Lawyers, judges, and jurors credit his testimony for successful verdicts.
Reading the Times story for its portrait of a Dr. Carson as an expert witness rather than a politician sheds light on the characteristics that make an expert effective. Four qualities that the article spotlights are gravitas, clarity, objectivity, and empathy.
The best experts radiate a sense of professionalism, authority, and integrity. Their manner of testifying assures jurors that they are both knowledgeable and honest.
Trial participants who heard Dr. Carson testify attribute those qualities to him. Even a plaintiff who sued paramedics, claiming they had worsened injuries that were inflicted by the police, admitted to being a little in awe when Dr. Carson testified on behalf of the paramedics. Dr. Carson’s testimony, attributing the cause of the plaintiff’s spinal injuries entirely to the force used by the police, was the key to a verdict that imposed no liability upon the paramedics.
Jurors in that case shared the plaintiff’s respect for Dr. Carson, as did the judge, who told the Times that it is “rare to see that kind of gravitas given to an expert witness.” The judge noted that the jury paid “rapt attention” to Dr. Carson’s testimony. One juror told the Times that the jury thought Dr. Carson “was the cat’s meow.”
Part of Dr. Carson’s success as a witness, according to the Times, stemmed from his ability to explain difficult medical concepts in clear language the lay jurors could understand. For example, he described the “spinal dura” to a jury as “a leather-like covering over the brain and spinal cord.” That metaphorical description made it easy for the jurors to picture something they had never seen.
At the same time, Dr. Carson did not “dumb down” his testimony in a way that jurors might have regarded as condescending. Using words like “laudatory” and “capacious” during his testimony sent a clear message that he was an articulate and intelligent witness who respected the jury’s ability to understand his rich vocabulary.
In his book America the Beautiful, Dr. Carson wrote that he tried to be “very cooperative, accommodating, and pleasant to the opposing attorneys” while exposing “the folly of their argument before the jury.” Avoiding the appearance of taking sides is a key to earning a jury’s trust.
Dr. Carson usually testified for defendants, but he testified for the plaintiff in some egregious cases of medical malpractice. Testifying for both plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases, and for the prosecution and defense in criminal cases, helps an expert avoid being pigeonholed as a “hired gun” for one side or the other.
Dr. Carson told the Times that he has good relationships with health care professionals and with injury victims. His willingness to testify “for whoever is right” enhanced his credibility with juries.
Objectivity is not the same as detachment. Jurors have difficulty connecting with experts who come across as aloof. Jurors like to know that experts care about the people they’ve chosen to stand up for in the courtroom.
As a surgeon, Dr. Carson prided himself on becoming close to his patients. His empathy comes across to juries. Empathy makes him effective as a doctor, as an expert witness, and as a politician. Even a former patient who sued Dr. Carson for malpractice said that she would still vote for him. By the same token, juries based their votes on Dr. Carson’s testimony, in part because they viewed him as an expert who cared.