The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil rights organization, has filed a lawsuit against Polk County, Florida for treatment of juveniles in detention centers. As reported by The Ledger, the Southern Poverty Law attorneys presented key testimony from a nationally recognized expert on juvenile justice who criticized Polk County prison for conditions conducive to violence and abuse among juvenile inmates. Paul DeMuro, nationally recognized as a juvenile justice system administrator, was critical of Polk County for failing to provide young inmates with sufficient activities, which leads to restlessness and inmate fighting. DeMuro also questioned the use of pepper spray on young inmates, saying that Polk County officials were too quick to resort to the tactic.
Attorneys for Polk County aggressively cross-examined DeMuro, specifically questioning whether or not he could testify to violent fighting being worse in Polk County jails than anywhere else. When he could not, DeMuro was next asked to analyze a situation in which pepper spray was used to determine if he felt it was appropriate. Although the expert witness was shown a video of prison officials using pepper spray to break up a violent fight, DeMuro stood his ground in his belief that the tactic was not used to prevent harm.
As the case is ongoing, it is unclear whether or not DeMuro’s testimony was sufficient for the plaintiffs, but it does serve as an example of how attorneys on both sides of an issue approach expert witnesses. Attorneys for the SPLC identified a nationally renowned expert and had him specifically criticize the defendant’s practices, and the attorneys for Polk County responded with pointed questions that challenged Mr. DeMuro’s knowledge and ability to evaluate the facts at issue in the case. Expert witness testimony can often shape the outcome of litigation, and it is important that attorneys opposing the expert are prepared to challenge his testimony and ability to offer a persuasive point of view.