California Enacts New Law Regarding Expert Testimony

Even if you have no experience in the legal system, chances are that you have heard of expert testimony. This type of testimony is given in court by a person who is considered to be an expert in their particular field. Most often, these people offer forensic or medical evidence against or in support of a defendant.

A new state law, in effect since January, aims to make it easier for a conviction to be overturned when experts suddenly repudiate their testimony.

The state law comes about as a direct result of the William Richards’ murder case. In same, Richards was accused of strangling his wife and smashing her skull in the summer of 1993. Richards was convicted, in part, due to expert testimony that claimed a bite mark on his wife’s hand matched his teeth.

The expert later changed his testimony, stating that the injury may not have been a bite mark after all.

A jury convicted Richards four years after his wife’s murder after forensic dentist Norman Sperber testified that the injurious marks on his wife’s hand matched Richards’ bite mark. Prosecutors in the case argued that whoever killed the female Richards left that mark. Sperber later changed his opinion, stating that he was not sure whether the mark was a bite.

Richards’ lawyers took his case to the California Supreme Court where the guilty verdict was upheld. The Court’s opinion stated that the repudiation of expert testimony does not make said testimony false. There was enough evidence, according to the court system, to prove Richards’ guilt despite the change in expert testimony.

Lawyers for Richards explain that the evidence was all circumstantial, save the expert testimony, and that Richards has maintained his innocence from prison for more than 20 years. The defense has since presented new evidence that they say will prove Richards did not commit the crime.

The new law will make it easier for defendants to have their verdicts overturned when expert witnesses change their opinions or contradict their previous testimonies. Calling this testimony false evidence, it will be grounds for an overturned conviction when that evidence is the key to a guilty verdict.

Expert testimony that is recanted should be treated no differently than eyewitness testimony that is recanted, claim legal experts. It remains to be seen whether this new law will have an effect on the life of a man who has spent 25 years in prison for a crime he may not have committed.

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