When people think back on highly publicized criminal trials, some of the influential attorneys in those cases probably come to mind. The names and distinct personalities of memorable prosecuting and defense lawyers such as Jonnie Cochran, Mark Geragos, Anne Bremner, Gloria Allred and Joze Baez will likely be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who followed these cases. However, while attorneys must painstakingly assemble every facet of a court case; the value of expert witnesses in such cases cannot be understated.
Experts assist lawyers in developing strategies concerning how evidence should be presented in court. Of course, because of their knowledge on the relevant subject matter, the court will place a greater value on an expert’s testimony. Many cases turn upon the opinions given by experts such as forensic pathologists, doctors, cyber security technicians, accounting specialists and so forth. Below are a few influential expert witnesses, whose testimony shaped the outcome of the cases they were involved in and reinforced the value of experts.
Henry Lee – Forensic Scientist
Some of the most infamous murder cases of the last twenty years have utilized the expertise of renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry Chang-Yu Lee. Born in China, his family fled the Chinese Civil War to Taiwan. There Lee became a police captain at age 25. He later emigrated to the U.S., where he obtained a B.S. in Forensic Science. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on forensic science, and founded the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science. Dr. Lee even created a television show on the truTV network titled Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee, which features his work on many high-profile cases.
One of the most memorable cases Dr. Lee was involved in was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson for the stabbing death of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman in 1994. Dr. Lee was retained as a forensic expert for the defense. He posited that while there was an abundance of evidence pointing to Simpson as the killer, the sources for much of that evidence were often questionable. He also pinpointed problems with how the evidence was tracked.
During the investigation, blood on a pair of socks collected from Simpson’s bedroom apparently went unnoticed until two months after the killing, when it was observed at the crime laboratory. Dr. Lee, along with other defense experts, suggested the blood was placed onto the socks while they were lying flat. Rather than while someone was wearing them. This allowed the defense to suggest that police may have tampered with the victims’ blood at the lab. Dr. Lee also posited that two sets of footprints near the site of the murders could have been from multiple attackers, rather than from police investigators. His analyses and testimony were instrumental in Simpson being found not guilty for the murders.
Dr. Lee also served as a forensic expert in the 1996 strangling murder of JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado. Lee participated as part of an investigative task force formed by District Attorney Alex Hunter, along with DNA specialist Barry Scheck. At the time, Dr. Lee referred to the case as “one of the most puzzling cases among the high-profile cases” he had worked on. He visited Boulder several times during the investigation to meet with authorities. He believed that early mistakes in the investigation may have had an impact on investigators’ ability to solve the crime.
Recently, Dr. Lee was asked by CBS to take another look at the evidence for their documentary series “The Case of JonBen” which brought back the case’s original investigators along with new experts to re-evaluate the case. While the case remains unsolved, Dr. Lee maintains that it is ultimately solvable, even after two decades.
In addition to the JonBenét Ramsey and O.J. Simpson cases, Dr. Lee applied his forensic expertise in the Casey Anthony murder trial, the Scott Peterson murder trial, the post-9/11 forensic investigations and the Washington, DC sniper shootings. He also took part in a 1998 reexamination of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Gert Saayman – Forensic Pathologist
After the 2013 shooting death of model Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend of South African double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius, forensic pathologist Gert Saayman was responsible for the victim’s port-mortem examination. Saayman, who serves as head of the Forensic Pathology department at the University of Pretoria, provided a graphic pathologist report to the court on behalf of the prosecution.
In the report, Saayman gave testimony which concluded that, based on fragments found in Steenkamp’s skull, Pistorius had used an expanding bullet designed to cause maximum tissue damage when he fired into a locked bathroom that Steenkamp was inside. Saayman clinically recounted the various wounds Steenkamp suffered to such an extent that Pistorius became physically ill during the testimony. While Pistorius escaped a murder charge, Saayman’s analysis and testimony contributed to a conviction of culpable homicide, or “the unlawful negligent killing of a human being.”
Vincent Di Maio – Forensic Pathologist
Forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio is a nationally recognized expert in the area of gunshot wounds. Having more than 40 years of experience in this field, he is the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. He has also served as a professor for the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
In the summer of 2013, Di Maio took the stand for the defense in the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Di Maio’s testimony concluded that injuries to Zimmerman were consistent with the defense’s account that Martin was on top of/leaning over Zimmerman at the time Martin was shot. He made this conclusion by noting that Martin’s clothing was falling away from him before he was shot. This would be consistent with someone leaning over.
Di Maio also testified that Zimmerman had several injuries from an apparent struggle. These would have been consistent with Zimmerman’s head being struck into a sidewalk. Finally, Di Maio stated that Zimmerman’s nose could have been fractured; which lined up with Zimmerman’s statements about being punched in the nose.
Di Maio’s testimony was critical in the defense achieving a verdict of not guilty for both charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. When speaking about the case to the New York Times, a prominent Miami defense attorney stated, “When Di Maio testified, it was a checkmate.”
Janine Arvizu – Laboratory Data Quality Auditor
Thanks to the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” many around the world recently became enamored with the mystery surrounding the 1997 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in rural Wisconsin. The series highlighted the uncertain facts and practices surrounding the investigation. It also exposed possible flaws in our criminal justice system as a whole.
As with any such case, much hinged on the testimony of expert witnesses. During the investigation, defendant Steven Avery’s blood was found inside of Halbach’s vehicle. This was obviously a damning piece of evidence. However, the defense attempted to argue that Avery’s blood may have been planted in the vehicle by police officers with a vendetta against Avery.
To this end, the defense called Janine Arvizu, a Laboratory Data Quality Auditor. She and Marc Labeu, Chief of the FBI Laboratories Chemistry Unit and expert witness for the prosecution, testified on the reliability of an “EDTA test.”
The chemical EDTA is found in evidence vials used to store blood. The test was conducted in order to conclude whether EDTA would be found in Avery’s blood samples taken from the car. The defense argued that if EDTA was found in Avery’s blood samples, it would suggest that someone took a blood sample in police possession and planted it in the vehicle. The FBI conducted this test on a blood sample at the request of the prosecution and found no EDTA. Thus they argued that Avery’s blood could not have been planted by police.
However, only one sample of the blood in the vehicle was tested, even though there were three other bloodstain swabs. Marc Labeu testified for the prosecution that since the swab that was tested did not contain EDTA, then none of the other three swabs probably contained it either.
Janine Arvizu took the stand to testify that while she found no technical fault with the EDTA test, there was always potential for a false positive. Upon being asked by the defense about whether the other three blood swabs from the vehicle (which were not tested), could have contained EDTA, she succinctly stated, “I’m an analytical chemist. I’m not in the business of just guessing what’s in samples. We have to test samples to decide what’s in them.”
The defense’s suggestion of evidence tampering did not stop Avery from being convicted for Halbach’s murder. However, testimony like that of Janine Arvizu continues to demonstrate the value of experts in the courtroom.