Criminal Justice

Forensic Experts Aren't Team Players. Nor Should They Be.


reason contributor Roger Koppl relays the story of a district attorney in the Midwest who threatened one of Koppl's acquaintances, who happens to be a county medical examiner. The prosecutor's complaint?  The doctor had testified for the defense in a nearby jurisdiction. Koppl writes:

The email says, "I do not find this acceptable" and "I view this practice as a conflict of interest and inappropriate." I think the DA sincerely believes that his ME acted wrongly.   "I would never accept a request to review the matter in the first place. Nor do you have to accept these requests. If you continue to do so, I am giving you the courtesy of letting you know that neither the Sheriff or I will be in a position to continue to support your appointment as the [local] County Coroner." That's quite a threat: If you persist in testifying for the defense in other counties you'll lose your job as ME in this county.

I think Koppl's friend needs to publicly name this district attorney. It is the DA's behavior that is unprofessional, irresponsible, and wholly inappropriate, here. A medical examiner is not part of the prosecution's "team."  From the National Association of Medical Examiners' Forensic Autopsy Performance Standards:

Medicolegal death investigation officers, be they appointed or elected, are charged by statute to investigate deaths deemed to be in the public interest–serving both the criminal justice and public health systems. These officials must investigate cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors. The parallel investigation promotes neutral and objective medical assessment of the cause and manner of death.

To promote competent and objective death investigations . . . [m]edicolegal death investigation officers should operate without any undue influence from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

Many prosecutors don't see it this way (pdf). They believe a medical examiner's job is not to get at the truth, but  to help the state win convictions. If his conclusions differ from the prosecutor's theories about the crime, then the medical examiner's job is to keep his mouth shut. This case is even more egregious, in that this particular prosecutor is objecting to his own county's medical examiner testifying in another jurisdiction. As Koppl explains, this may be an effort by prosecutors in the area to gain a monopoly on "truth" by depriving defendants of qualified available experts.

Koppl and I wrote a piece for Slate earlier this year outlining steps to a more fair, accurate, and honest forensics system.

NEXT: House Negro, Please

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  1. 20 years later and it’s as true if not moreso.

    Seeking no Truth

    Winning is All

    Find it so grim, so true, so real.

  2. Prosecutors come in two stripes. Underlings who do whatever their boss tells them so that they can go on to private practice and large salaries, and bosses who can’t get a job in private practice because they are irrational zealots who couldn’t properly analyze two sides of an issue to save their life. The latter sometimes go into politics.

  3. If Koppl’s friend won’t name the DA, I at least hope he sends the schmuck a link to this article. Send a message that there are people who won’t look the other way if this turns pear-shaped.

  4. Kyle,

    God, that was 20 YEARS ago! Thanks a lot. I hadn’t felt old today until I heard that.

    As for this asshat, I can’t believe he is afforded anonymity. This kind of shit truly needs to be publicized. If he felt (feels) so damn strongly, write an op-ed. Of course, he may feel strongly about it, but he knows it is wrong.

  5. It doesn’t help that the general public thinks CSI is reality,while in fact, it’s as much science fiction as Stargate Atlantis.Oh,and notice how many BAC machine makers refuse to give their code over to the defense even under court order.One company has been fined millions and thousands of cases are being thrown out due to them and LE misconduct in Texas,Florida other states.Of course its not as bad as faulty forensics in a murder or rape case but DUI brings in the money and effects millions each year.

  6. The medical examiner needs to inform his professional association and his licensing body IMMEDIATELY in writing.

    The DA needs to be named and hauled before his legal licensing body for attempting to exert “undue influence” ie. blackmail. This guy needs a strong reminder that the job of the state attorney is to present evidence, not obtain a conviction. That’s the job of the judge or jury, based on the evidence.

    An expert witness is an expert witness, not somebodies mouthpiece to propagate politically correct dogma.

    I was an expert witness called by the defense lawyer in technical matter for a truck mechanic. I told the lawyer point blank that my testimony would be based on the evidence presented, nothing more nothing less. I was hired and the state put up such sloppy evidence that the client got off on the 5 counts I testified on.

    H.F. Wolff

  7. Absolutely amazing. A DA attempting to blackmail a witness.

    Keep the pressure on Radley. Do what ever you can to encourage Koppl’s acquaintance to come forward and name names in this shameful abuse of power.

  8. I wonder if this DA cares that he’s handing live ammunition to every defense attorney in the jurisdiction to attack the ME (and, indirectly, the DA’s ethics) for bias.

  9. The worst thing is that the DA doesn’t see his own job as seeking the truth, as opposed to seeking a conviction of any poor slob who stumbles into custody.

  10. This is only an overt form of the tilt toward prosecutorial power. Consider the many states that require a PI license to perform computer forensic examinations. The problem is two fold: 1- licensing is heavily biased to former law enforcement officers and 2- no forensic software vendors will train anyone who is on record as working for the defense (in a criminal case) or will admit plans to. Anyone needing to hire a computer forensic expert for the defense would have a very difficult time finding one.

  11. iron308:
    Would send me particulars on the PI restriction you note?

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