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 The trouble with experts

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PostSubject: The trouble with experts   Sun Oct 18, 2009 12:46 pm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/feb/25/beacampbellinthese

Bea Campbell - in these very pages, had already mounted her spirited defence of the expert evidence provided by Professor David Southall before the news that Gene Morrison, a man who had appeared in hundreds of court cases posing as a forensic psychologist was exposed as a fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. Even now police are having to reassess around 700 cases of armed robbery, rape, death by dangerous driving and unexplained deaths in which Morrison gave evidence, through fear that there may be miscarriages of justice.

I doubt if Morrison's conviction would change Bea Campbell's views about Southall's evidence in relation to child sexual abuse, but I have to say that as someone who has given expert evidence in relation to prisons on more than five occasions I'm not surprised that Morrison was able to get away with his bogus testimonies for over 27 years, or that the costs of his opinions are calculated to have been over £250,000 - a cost borne by the taxpayer, for the use of experts within our court system is not only riddled with huge cost but also with glaring flaws and error.

Frankly the only surprise in Morrison's case is that he was caught at all, and my worry is that he'll be dismissed merely as an outrageous charlatan rather than someone who perfectly exemplifies a system that encourages personal opinion to masquerade as science and the "truth", with various hired guns prepared to be an expert on fingerprints, facial mapping, and imagery analysis one day, and dangerous driving, offender profiling - and dare I say it, child sexual abuse the next.

Most of us are now familiar with the failures of the expert evidence of Professor Sir Roy Meadows - which led to the imprisonment of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel, but how many know about Mark Dallagher, wrongly jailed for murder in 1998 after a jury was told that an earprint on the window of his 94-year-old victim was his, when in fact he was later cleared of DNA evidence, or about Michael Heath, a senior Home Office pathologist who has been allowed to work on some of our most high profile cases - including those of the death of Stuart Lubbock in Michael Barrymore's swimming pool, the murders of Lin and Megan Russell and the Kenneth Noye stabbing case, when questions were raised about his competence years ago?

But while experts of various kinds will come and go, we have to think what their continuing existence means about the state of our criminal justice system, which used to be based on the testing of evidence that was presented at court - bloodstains that were found, or items of clothing left at the crime scene, or what witnesses saw or heard. Now, instead, forensic scientists of various kinds hold sway, and barristers, judges and juries brought up on a steady diet of CSI are only too happy to convict rather than to test, probe and question.

The evolving science that surrounds DNA, for example, demands caution and careful interpretation, while the criminal law and our adversarial system expects a simple explanation - often nothing better than a "yes" or "no" answer. So the hired expert who presents his data with certainty and determination is more likely to win over a jury than the more hesitant doctor, scientist or expert who is prepared to acknowledge doubt.

That's why Gene Morrison was able to bamboozle the courts for as long as he did - not because he had a fake PhD (after all, even TV diet experts have those), but because he presented what he had to say with certainty and conviction and the scrutiny of the science behind what he said was never robustly questioned either by the defence or by the prosecution.

At the end of the day it is not the experts who let our court system down, but the failure to subject what they are saying to the appropriate care and scrutiny.
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