I recently created a podcast series on iTunes called BlindSpot. I created it for people who are interested in knowing more about becoming a forensic expert. The name BlindSpot comes from the concept that forensic experts see and hear what other people cannot. Forensic experts in various fields reveal the ‘blind spot’ by identifying and acquiring evidence using their experience and expertise as forensic scientists.
In this blog post I want to discuss an overview of what it takes to become an expert witness. How do you transition your career into a forensic expert? What do you have to do to become a forensic expert in your industry? What do you do once you believe you have completed the necessary steps in order to be successful, especially in the courtroom?
Being a forensic expert requires the scientific expertise necessary to investigate a piece of evidence being used in court. Forensic accountants know how to use software programs as well as their learned skills to help them solve accounting mysteries. They are also very good at math and problem solving. Forensic accountants are brought in when people suspect fraud and embezzlement, both personally and professionally. They can go back in ledgers and bank statements to determine the ‘who and how’ about the missing moolah. How did 20 million dollars in cash vanish from a business? Where did the tax dollars go from the city treasury?
Many Fields of Forensic Experts
A forensic accountant has the talent, skill and ability to solve these mysteries. But where did their talent come from? I believe we are all born with a gifted talent that lifts us up above the average person. Much of a forensic expert’s training is in the classroom. I believe the best forensic experts not only perfect their expertise in training but they are also born with their expertise.
Computer forensic experts investigate computer systems to help solve mysteries about deleted files and operating system behavior. They look for deleted files and other computer trails in the operating history. There is often an electronic trail left behind in a computer when a file has been deleted. Computer forensic experts are called in when police confiscate computer equipment after a crime was committed. They look for clues to help the police convict or acquit the arrested. Computer forensic experts also get involved with forensic accountants to help solve financial crimes because much of today’s accounting is done on computers.
Computer forensic experts also understand modified, accessed and created meta data that helps litigators understand the truth about an evidence file. Knowing this forensic information helps the authorities understand a suspect’s behavior and intent surrounding a crime or alleged crime.
Civil Engineers help accident reconstruction forensic experts with recreating an accident scene. Using video and or animation, these forensic experts bring the accident scene into the court room very scientifically and accurately depicting the faults involved so that the judge and jury better understand the accident scene and events that occurred leading up to the accident.
Medical experts help litigators understand medical procedures and how medical methodology should be followed. They explain in reports and testimony how a medical accident occurred and how it could have been avoided. They also explain to the judge and jury what went wrong or what was right about a malpractice procedure in question.
So where do you begin your process with becoming a forensic expert?
Look at your resume. If you don’t have a resume, make one. If you don’t know how to make a resume, find somebody that does and ask for help. Your resume is the starting point for your forensic career. This document will eventually become your forensic expert curriculum vitae, CV, which is Latin for resume.
If you have graduated college, look around for some continuing education training in your field of expertise. This training can be a certificate course taught by another established forensic expert or forensic association. You can also start by designing problem solving experiments. Science is observation and the more experience you have observing science as a forensic expert, the better.
Join some associations and attend their meetings. This is a great way to learn more about your field of expertise, as well as meet people who will eventually become your peers. You can learn a lot by networking with your peers. Casual dinner conversation usually includes previous case stories that communicate experience. Once you get to know your peers, you can ask one that you have connected with to mentor you as you begin your transition into becoming a forensic expert.
I have started a mentor program and work with aspiring audio video forensic experts around the world.
Testifying and Non Testifying Forensic Experts
Not all forensic experts decide to become expert witnesses and appear in court. There are many qualified experts in hundreds of fields who choose to avoid the stress of testifying and focus only on their scientific forensic work. Testifying in court is incredibly challenging and requires a lot of preparation to withstand the pressure and the stress of the courtroom – and yes, there is stress.
Personally, I’ve found there are two aspects to my career as an audio and video forensic expert. The first is my actual audio and video forensic skills; the lab work and reports I write leading up to testifying in court. This includes audio and video enhancement, authentication and voice identification. There are hundreds of forensic fields which need more experts because of growth and expansion.
The second aspect to my career is testifying. This skill almost outweighs my expert experience in the laboratory as far as importance, in my mind. This requires you to not only know your field of expertise, but to also know how to speak about your work and act in the courtroom. I’ve worked on and testified in hundreds of forensic assignments and court cases over the last thirty years, which has helped me build my reputation and credibility as an expert witness.
There are many things that a forensic expert should keep in mind when they’re planning on testifying in court.
First, think about working closely with your client attorney and make sure that you’re both on the same page when it comes to trial. I’ve had a lot of lawyers over the years procrastinate on that pre-trial ‘huddle’ I like to call it, or conference, so that you understand what is expected of you. You can then anticipate what the prosecution or the opposing counsel may ask you during cross examination, which is one of the most important aspects to trial preparation – anticipate the cross examination.
Of course you’re going to dress like a pro. Dressing and acting accordingly while in court is crucial to determine an expert’s integrity in any case, especially in the eyes of the jury. I remember working a case once, in Lower Manhattan Federal Court, and the experts were sequestered, which means we all had to wait in the hallway and we couldn’t hear previous testimony or any other details about the case. After a few hours everyone broke for lunch and I remember talking to my attorney – which, this was the first time we had met – and she told me that there was a psychologist on the stand. Just at that very moment the woman who was the psychologist left the courtroom, looking a little flustered and she had this amazing cloud of perfume following her (and I’m using the word ‘cloud’ to be polite!). So, another hour or so after lunch and it was my turn to go into court and testify. When I sat at the witness stand all I could smell in the courtroom was that perfume. I have to be honest with you, it kind of annoyed me a bit, and if I was annoyed I suspect that there were a few people on the jury that were probably annoyed, and they had to sit with that woman a lot longer than I had to deal with that cloud that had lingered behind her in the witness stand.
So, dressing is not just the clothes that you wear. It is your hair, your perfume or cologne; it is your overall appearance. And I’ve been told – and I’m only saying this to express and not impress – that I’m pretty good in front of a jury and I’d like to think it’s because I maintain a conservative look, I know how to talk and I know how to make eye contact. These are all important ingredients when you’re in court testifying. But I’m digressing a little bit. I guess that I am passionate about testifying, which is why I’m starting here in this post.
Transition your Career from Professional to Forensic Expert
How do you transition your career into an expert witness? By writing your curriculum vitae (CV), completing forensic assignments, writing reports, courtroom experience, and understanding what it means to be under oath.
Regardless of whether or not you’re going to be a scientist and stick to the lab or an expert witness and do both lab work and testifying, you really need to know how to complete a forensic assignment. So if you’re thinking about a career as an expert witness, consider your training and continuing your education. This is the starting point for transitioning your profession into becoming a forensic expert. It is really important continue your education throughout the course of your forensic expert career. That includes both online and in classroom training. Doing so will help you stay current with your steps that you’re taking in regard to forensic assignments and the processes that you’re undergoing when you’re conducting your forensic analyses. That will turn into a forensic report, which is also your script when testifying.
Next, when becoming a forensic expert that testifies, it is very important to gain courtroom experience. Of course when you first start your forensic career you probably don’t have court experience, and if you do, well, you’re ahead of the game. That first time that you step foot into the courtroom and the first time that you testify will help to increase your confidence so that you continue to have an opportunity to practice as an expert witness and get more experience in the courtroom. You will keep track of your experience in the courtroom and you will add this to your curriculum vitae.
Your CV is a work in progress. Add your deposition and your courtroom experience to your curriculum vitae as the assignments are completed. This helps to increase your integrity, as well as your experience, and your perceived value to your prospects.
What does it mean to be under oath? When you walk into the courtroom and you raise your right hand and you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God, that means you can go to prison if you’re caught lying.
Expert witnesses need to run from being perceived or even thinking about being a ‘hired gun’. You don’t want to think about the money and the financial gain to the work that you’re going to do. Rather, you should want to be a scientist and stick to the facts and what you can solemnly swear to be the truth when you raise that right hand. Perjury is nothing you want to get involved in. That is kind of the scary aspect to what I think keeps scientists out of the courtroom. And like I said earlier, you can certainly be a forensic expert without being an expert witness.
Preparation for trial is extremely important. The biggest problem I have with preparing for trial is getting the attorney that I’m working for or with to understand the importance of preparing for trial. Often I have to tackle the attorney by demanding a call with them prior to getting on an airplane or going to the courthouse – I happen to testify more out of state than I do in-state – and I have to have a call with them before I show up wherever I’m going to testify. Sometimes that is at nine or ten at night before I get on the airplane. That is fine, as long as we exchange what their expectations are, what my beliefs about the case are and we get a little bit of a strategy going so that I can write some questions to help them in court. I like to create some questions that are based on my experience and my expertise for the attorney to utilize like a script. Then, they can ask me direct examination questions while I am on the stand.
Preparation also involves anticipating cross examination questions. Those are questions that should be written and presented to your client attorney. Those cross-examination questions can be turned into direct examination questions. That way, you can ‘deflate’ the opposing side or the prosecutor’s questions before they even have an opportunity to ask. A lot of times, those anticipated cross examination questions are the elephant in the room that you can get out now instead of ‘Well, we’ll wing it and see what happens,’ which is exactly what you don’t want to do.
How do you dress and act when you go into a courtroom? You have to be very conservative. Tattoos and piercings, facial hair and dyed hair (pink, purple) are not good ideas if you are thinking about a career as an expert witness. You should wear a tie if you’re a man; both men and women should wear suits. Men could wear a sport coat and slacks and they should always have dress shoes on. Either way your clothes should look recently purchased. Remember, you’re making good money as an expert witness – break down every couple of years and rotate your wardrobe. Don’t keep trying to wear those shirts that don’t fit any more and have the buttons stretched to the point where one could pop and take out somebody’s eye in the courtroom.
I’ve seen a lot of people walk into court that call themselves expert witnesses and have improper packaging. You really need to look impressive when you walk into that room. I’m not talking flashy, I’m talking attractive and put together so that the jury can perceive you as being a person of integrity.
When you’re on the stand and looking sharp, you want to pay careful attention to the questions that you’re being asked and you want to answer those questions in short sentences. Even if you have to answer a difficult question during cross examination, don’t ramble trying to accommodate or correct a wrong that is completely out of your control. Answer those questions direct and in short sentences. The attorney who is asking the questions, or the prosecutor, will probe if they want more information. Don’t offer more information randomly; just answer the question that has been asked.
There are two aspects to your examination. The first is direct and I’ve touched on that a little bit previously. This is where the defense attorney that you’ve been retained by will begin by asking you questions that will help reveal your work and the scientific observations that you have made. Then there is the cross examination. That is where the opposing side, the prosecution in a criminal case, asks you questions to try to derail your train of thought when it comes to your opinions. They’re going to use trick questions to try to make you not look good as an expert witness. This is where you really need to stay cool, because their job is to try to reduce your perceived value or integrity in the eyes of the jury (or the judge, if it’s a bench trial). You need to stay calm and cool and think about how you’re going to answer those questions and if you’re not sure you can always ask them to repeat the question. This gives you a few more seconds to think about how you want to answer the question that they just asked.
So what does it take to be an expert witness? It takes a well written CV that explains your experience and expertise and good report writing. It takes good forensic science and experience, which comes from training. It takes good courtroom experience and careful preparation for trial and testifying. You want to know how to dress, you want to pay attention to the questions and answer them in short sentences and you want to think about your examination experience as a two part process. The first is direct examination and the second is cross examination.
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