After a host of miscarriages of justice based on discredited expert witnesses, calls are growing for radical reform of their use in court, writes Lois Rogers
Yet another woman was sent to prison last week, following expert evidence that she had shaken to death a baby in her care. Keran Henderson, a 42-year-old childminder, was said to have killed 11-month-old Maeve Sheppard, by shaking her so violently she was left blind and brain-damaged. The infant died in hospital a few days later.
The case has grim echoes of those of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel, all of whom were accused of killing their children only to be found innocent later. Clark, a solicitor, who was released from prison after serving three years, died last March as a result of psychological trauma and alcoholism caused by her ordeal.
At the Court of Appeal, two days after the judgment on Henderson, a retrial was ordered in the case of Barry George, the loner convicted of killing the television personality Jill Dando in 1999 with a single shot to the head. Expert testimony as to the significance of a particle of gunshot matter in his pocket is being challenged.
There has also been the recent conviction of the true killer of schoolgirl Lesley Molseed, 32 years after the event – and after Stefan Kiszko had served 16 years for the sexually motivated killing, even though medical evidence could have pointed out his infertility proved his innocence. Once again the review of the evidence threw a spotlight on the role of expert witnesses, whose testimony is often crucial in criminal cases but can be unreliable.
Our blind faith in scientific opinion makes us reluctant to question pronouncements by “experts”, but while the law requires everyone from plumbers to nurses to be trained, registered and checked, there is no such requirement for witnesses who may be pronouncing on matters of life and death in court.
A study by senior barrister Penny Cooper of City University in London, has shown that the majority of lawyers and judges do not bother to check the qualifications of experts they approach to bolster an aspect of their case. She also found a substantial number of the expert witnesses had undergone no training to understand their legal duty.
The disquiet this arouses has led to a clamour for legislation to require expert witnesses to be regulated. But how to do that without calling into question thousands of court decisions will not be an easy task.
There is already acute unease over the proliferation of parents convicted of causing cot deaths, shaking babies to death, or harming them by creating symptoms of fictitious illness.