Criminal Justice

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

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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.