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Standards for expert witnesses stricter under new Wisconsin law

In the previous post, the damaging effect of a sex crime accusation was discussed. Even without a conviction, allegations of something like sexual assault of a child can permanently alter someone's life.

In sexual assault cases, prosecutors will sometimes bring in expert witnesses to testify about certain aspects of the case. But are these witnesses qualified to give such testimony? There had been concern that previous Wisconsin standards made it too easy for someone to qualify as an expert.

The danger was that in some instances, individuals who were considered expert witnesses by the prosecution were not necessarily credible as a witness to testify on that particular topic. Up until recently, a qualified witness needed only a relevant opinion that was backed up by scientific or specialized knowledge.

Now, due to an amendment to Wisconsin law, expert testimony must be "based on facts and reliable research" and the expert giving the testimony must "have experience applying those principles." Some, including Steven Kohn, an attorney at Kohn & Smith Law Offices, believe that these changes will ensure that the experts giving testimony are in fact experts.

This means that, under the new statute, qualified expert witnesses must:

  • Work for an independent organization, or
  • Have prior experience giving eyewitness testimony; and
  • Testify based on a scientific conclusion after examining the facts of a case (not knowledge-based opinion)

For Kohn, these new changes are welcome changes and reflect "the legislative efforts to make it fair." In his experience as a Milwaukee defense attorney, testimony given by an expert can have a serious effect on the outcome of a case, especially when it comes to difficult sexual assault cases. And when a conviction could mean a long prison sentence, expert testimony should be credible and given by an expert.

Source: Wisconsin Law Journal online, "Great expert-tations," Jack Zemilcka, 07 February 2011

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