Expert witnesses are an important part of America's criminal justice system. They play a vital role in the nation's courtrooms, sharing their expertise in a given area and explaining it in laymen's terms in an effort to help a jury understand the complexities of a case.
Still, there is more to being an "expert witness" than knowing more about medicine or psychology than jury members. The fact is many people do not know what it actually means to be an expert witness, including some of the so-called experts.
Part of the problem has been that there is no licensing process for these experts. In fact, up until now, being an expert witness has been notable for its "on-the-job training." Now, however, with the help of a new series of classes offered through California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), there is a program aimed at improving the situation.
The Expert Witness Certification Program was jointly established by CSULB's University College and Extension Services and the Forensic Consultants Association of Orange County (FCAOC), a group founded five years ago by judges and lawyers concerned about the professional level of expert testimony.
Developed by a group of legal, marketing and business professionals, the one-of-a-kind program is designed to raise the level of legal awareness, professionalism, credibility and readiness among expert witnesses.
"We are supplying a basic understanding of law and the crucial role of the expert," explained Penni Wells, director of the program. "Expert witnesses can make or break a case. So, it is in everyone's best interest that those serving as experts understand clearly their roles and responsibilities."
The 10-week program meets one night a week in the Orange County offices of Cal State Long Beach. The 15 class members in each session review ethics, the law, communication, the liability of experts, testimony preparation, basic business practices and the marketing of expert witness services.
The class culminates in a mock trial held in the Orange County Superior Courtroom of Judge David McEachen, who refers to the proceedings as "graduation." This simulation gives participants a realistic peek at what it's like being on the stand as an expert witness.
"What we do at the mock trial is have attorneys who practice in various fields give a direct and cross examination of each expert witness completing the program," said McEachen, who noted that participants are given a video-tape of their performance on the stand, which lasts about 30 minutes.
"I have a very busy calendar and many of the cases involve expert witnesses," he pointed out. "Because I deal with these experts every day, I am in a position to offer participants in the program tips on how to improve their courtroom testimony. I can make them better expert witnesses."
Also, as part of the program, McEachen teaches a class in understanding the law. In this class, he presents students with a 100-page handout on expert witness testimony. From a trial judge's point of view, this handout talks about how to interview an expert, how to contract with an expert witness, how to perform a directed cross examination, how to handle depositions.
McEachen is not paid for the hours of work he does on behalf of the program, but that doesn't matter to him. The goal is improving the courts.
"The point is that expert witnesses are crucial to the court system. The improvement of one is the improvement of the other," the judge said. "We are giving experts a perspective from a judicial point of view, which they don't normally have a chance to see. I don't know of any other four-year university that has a program like this."
Don Neff, an expert in construction and real estate development, was one of the first graduates of the program. A member of the FCAOC board of directors and owner of the Newport Beach-based Ja Jolla Pacific, Ltd., he praised the program and its content.
"(The FCAOC) is made up of a diverse group of people including architects, engineers, surgeons, psychologists, building contractors and accountants," Neff said. "This program is the first of its kind to coalesce into one forum a variety of professionals, both legal and business, to assist us in fine-tuning our expert witnessing skills.
"What's great about the course is that you get more than the ivory-tower approach," he added. "The instructors are practitioners. We are dealing with people who are leaders in their professions such as judges, arbitrators, mediators and attorneys for both plaintiffs and the defense."
Having the certificate adds a margin of polish that wouldn't otherwise exist, Neff concluded. It may not give substance to what you know as an expert witness, he admits, "but it does help you organize your thoughts, make a presentation, and use an analytical approach to be a more effective witness. Overall, it makes you a better, more effective part of the justice system."
Public Affairs Offices/Campus News