How to Become a Forensic Expert

Audio Forensic LabI recently created a podcast series on iTunes called BlindSpot.  I created it for people 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. This overview will cover the following questions:

  • 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 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 in the matter. 

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? 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. When a file has been deleted, an electronic trail remains in its place. Experts are called in when police confiscate computer equipment after a crime was committed and they look for clues to help 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 forensic experts with recreating an accident scene. These forensic experts use video or animation to bring the accident scene into the court room, scientifically and accurately depicting the faults involved. Doing so helps the judge and jury better understand the accident scene and events leading up to it.

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. These experts also explain to the judge and jury what went wrong or what was right about a malpractice procedure in question.

Beginning Your Forensic Journey

Your resume is the starting point for your forensic career. If you don’t have a resume, make one. This document will eventually become your forensic expert curriculum vitae, CV, which is Latin for resume.

If you have graduated college, seek out 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.

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.

Lab Work

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 and authentication. There are hundreds of forensic fields which need more experts because of growth and expansion.

Testifying

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 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.

Dressing and acting accordingly in court is crucial to establish an expert’s integrity in any case, especially in the eyes of the jury. Dressing is not just the clothes that you wear. It is your overall appearance, including your hair, makeup, and even your perfume or cologne. I try to maintain a conservative look in court. I know how to talk and how to make eye contact. These are all important ingredients when you’re testifying. 

Transition Your Career from Professional to Forensic Expert

Educational Experience

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 you’re going to be a scientist or an expert witness and testify as well, 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. That includes both online and classroom training. Doing so will help you stay current with steps taken in regard to forensic assignments and the processes you’re undergoing when conducting your forensic analyses. That will turn into a forensic report, which is also your script when testifying.

Courtroom Experience

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. The first time you step foot into the courtroom and testify will help increase your confidence. You will continue to have an opportunity to practice as an expert witness and get more experience in the courtroom. And you will keep track of your experience in the courtroom and add this to your curriculum vitae. Your CV is a work in progress. Add your deposition and courtroom experience to your curriculum vitae as the assignments are completed. This helps increase your integrity, experience, and perceived value to your prospects.

Under Oath

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, you will go to prison if you’re caught lying. Expert witnesses need to run from being perceived or even thinking about being a hired gun. Rather, be a scientist and stick to the facts. Perjury is nothing you want to get involved in. That is 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

Preparation for trial is extremely important. The biggest problem I have with preparing for trial is getting the attorney that I’m working with to understand its importance. I often have to demand a call with them prior to going into the courthouse. This call is neccesary to discuss their case expectations, my thoughts on the case, and overall strategy in court. I like to create questions that are based on my experience and expertise for the attorney to utilize like a script. They can then 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. These questions turn into direct examination questions. That being the case, 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 immediately instead of waiting for later.

On the Stand

When on the stand, you need to pay careful attention to the questions being asked and you want to answer them in short sentences. Even if you have to answer a difficult question during cross examination, don’t ramble and spiral out of control. Answer questions directly 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. Simply answer the question.

There are two aspects to your examination. First, the defense attorney that you’ve been retained by will begin by asking you questions to help reveal your work and the scientific observations that you have made. Second, there is the cross examination. The opposing side, also known as the prosecution in a criminal case, asks you questions to try to derail your train of thought and your opinions. They’re going to use trick questions to try to reduce your perceived value or integrity in the eyes of the jury. You need to stay calm and answer directly. 

A Summary of Steps

So what does it take to be an expert witness? It takes a precise CV that explains your experience and expertise. It takes good forensic science and experience, which comes from training. An expert witness also needs courtroom experience and careful preparation for trial and testifying. You need to dress well, pay attention to the questions and answer directly, and you want to think about your examination experience as a two-part process. First, direct examination. Second, cross examination.

Subscribe to BlindSpot on iTunes and you?ll be notified of future episodes as they’re produced. We welcome your comments and questions at [email protected].

5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court

evidence - court

Video evidence is the most accurate representation of the events as they naturally occurred. In fact, surveillance videos today are more accurate than eye witness testimony alone. Once surveillance video has been properly authenticated and the source of the chain of custody has been presented, they are ready for court. In the following blog post, 5 Tips for Preparing Digital Video Evidence for Court, video forensic expert will teach its readers about the 5 major lessons our experts have learned and want to share with you about preparing your surveillance videos for use in court.


5 Tips for preparing digital video evidence for court

Tip #1: Chain of Custody

Chain of custody is perhaps the most important tip from this post. Document and maintain a chain of custody on your video evidence. A lack of an authentic chain of custody can cause the court to question the integrity of the surveillance videos and its admissibility. Lack of a proper chain of custody reduces the credibility of your video evidence.

For example, I currently have a case in house that includes a smart phone recording being used as video evidence. We preserved the video recordings on the smart phone. Why? It is crucial to our investigation. There is plenty of storage space available on the phone. Of course, I established and documented the chain of custody when I downloaded the phone in my lab. 

If it’s important, why were the video recordings not protected from creation? If the video events depict a crime being committed and will be admissible in court, it is also important to maintain the chain of custody for authentication purposes. Verification and establishment of the chain of custody visually and digitally is necessary for forensic authentication analysis investigations down the line.


Tip #2: When possible, use the original video recording.

As a rule of thumb, always present the original digital video recording, not a copy. Copies of digital video recordings can be misrepresented if there is not an authentic chain of custody. Digital compression from copying and converting recordings affects the authenticity of the events as they occurred. In addition, improper copying affects the digital information used to determine the circumstances around a recording’s creation.

Sometimes, the surveillance videos may need clarification or enhancement. In this case, the original recording has undergone changes. Once the video enhancement process has been completed accurately, the derivative video work product is properly authenticated as an original representation of the events. A document describing the enhancement process completed by a trained professional, such as a video forensic expert, completes the process.

If you are uncertain if you have the original or if you believe you have an altered copy, seek guidance from a qualified and trained professional. Forensic experts authenticate digital video recordings scientifically and present a report of the digital integrity of the digital video file. Our experts provide a pro bono consultation to all clients.


Tip #3: Prepare your playback software for courtroom use.

As a rule of thumb, always prepare playing your video recordings before entering the court room. Make sure your video evidence is compatible for easy playback in court. Many of our clients at Primeau Forensics will give us a digital video recordings created on a closed circuit television surveillance system. Attorneys will often times enter a court room with a video requiring a proprietary player that will not open quickly. This keeps the trier of fact waiting for long periods of time, causing confusion and frustration.

When I enhance a video recording for courtroom use, I always export the video recording from my forensic software using a file extension that is easier to open than some of the clunky proprietary players that CCTV systems rely on for recording playback.

Before expert witness testimony, I always prep with my clients on the phone and in person. We use prep time to double and triple check our exhibits, some of which are demonstrative.


Tip #4: Prepare your playback equipment for sight as well as sound.

Will the jury be able to hear the audio clearly? Do you need a speaker or amplifier system to make the audio louder for everyone in court to hear? I commonly bring a suitcase of one or two playback equipment options to present all video properly.

Many courts that I have testified in have video playback equipment. Some of the video equipment that the court provides may not be a high enough quality higher resolution playback. Also, older systems may not be bright enough for the trier of fact to preview from. Double check with the court before hand to determine what playback technology they have available. Bring in any equipment necessary or outsource a company to do so, so the trier of fact can easily see and hear your video recording. If you have to rent equipment, make sure it arrives well in advance of the trial.

Before litigation, I am required to install proprietary courtroom viewing applications on my computer. The app completely messed up my computer. Because this was during prep time, I was able to undo the app and make other arrangements to play the video recordings. These kinds of errors are catastrophic for testimony, as well as your integrity and professionalism as an expert. Playback errors are better handled outside of the courtroom.


Tip #5: Bring enough copies for everyone.

Do you have copies of your video evidence for everyone involved in the litigation? Remember, you have to put an evidence/exhibit sticker on your digital video evidence. DVD exhibits have space to apply stickers on the label side of the DVD. USB drives are difficult to put evidence stickers on, but are growing in popularity as digital file size increases. When I present a USB drive, I place it in a small plastic evidence bag that looks like this:

Evidence and exhibit stickers and information can be placed on the bag itself.

These are the top 5 tips for presenting digital video evidence for court. If you have any questions about video recordings used in litigation as evidence, contact us.

The Importance of Communication during the Forensic Investigation

There are a lot of details to be discussed during a forensic investigation. Details like test results, trial strategy, discovery deadlines, opposing expert reports, and deposition details to name a few. A forensic expert must communicate well with everyone on the litigation team during a forensic investigation so they understand …Read More