By: Ronald J. Cohen, P.E.
Following the trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd, the prosecutors credited one of their expert witnesses, Dr. Martin Tobin, as being a significant contributor to obtaining a conviction. From years of in-court testimony experience, here is my list of the top five desirable characteristics of an expert witness that will aid in providing the jury a basis for trust and thereby influence their comprehension of the subject matter.
- Credentials – This is an important consideration when presenting an expert witness to a jury. However, it is not only about a degree or a school or certification. Look closely at work background and actual hands-on experience. Also, do not get lost in specifics. For example, you are not necessarily looking for a wood deck expert, but rather a structural engineer with knowledge in wood deck design and construction. Evaluating wood decks is about building codes, member and connection strengths, material degradation, and structural stability.
- Experience in Court – There are two sides to consider. Some attorneys prefer a witness without a court history, i.e., “with no baggage.” On the other hand, an expert who understands the court process is likely to be better equipped to be an aid in making the points you would like to promote. Regardless, the right expert will be able to present their opinions to the jury. Experience is more of a comfort level for the attorney.
- Confidence and Conviction – Your expert has reviewed materials and formed opinions. This expert must believe in the report that bears their signature. The expert should be prepared to step forward, state their opinions, explain their determination-of-cause and the basis of their opinions. Testimony is not a time to offer a message of uncertainty or non-commitment. Alternative theories should be settled before a report is prepared and issued.
- Comprehension – Your expert should be talking to the jury using easy-to-understand words and phrases. Court is not an opportunity for an expert to tell everyone how smart they are. Instead, it is the expert’s job to educate the jury about the subject in a manner that results in the jury appreciating how much they know and understand. No matter how difficult and complex the matter, the jurors become the expert in deliberation.
- Above all else, the expert must be truthful, fair, and honest. Anything less will be recognized by the jury.
Attorneys have an opportunity to tell the story of an occurrence from their perspective in opening and closing remarks. In between these two opportunities, the attorney has a limited voice. Fact witnesses simply answer questions and are sometimes led astray. The expert witness can provide the attorney a voice during a trial to have the viewpoint of their client presented to the jury. Therefore, your expert needs to know when to answer yes or no and when to explain themselves. In addition, I always like it when an attorney stops my testimony and states, “excuse me, let me break this down and see if I understand what you are saying.” This offers me an improved opportunity to distinctly explain my opinions and to better assure jury comprehension.
If you are looking for an expert witness in a particular matter, please feel free to contact us for a complimentary case evaluation.
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