You Don’t Have to Be an Expert to Understand and Communicate the Truth

by J. Warner Wallace

Jurors are truly the most important people in the courtroom. Yes there are other prominent players in the room; prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, court clerks, and, of course, the judge. All these folks are a necessary part of the legal process. But none of them, aside from the jurors, has a vote in determining the fate of the defendant. Only the jurors have that critical power: the power of decision. The responsibility of the jury is foremost. It is a breathtaking responsibility, if you really stop to think about it. In my last post, I talked about the characteristics that we’re looking for in jurors as we vet and evaluate them for cold-case trials. We want jurors that are smart, humble and passionate. While these are important characteristics, the one thing we don’t require of jurors is that they be experts.

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There are lots of areas of expertise in criminal trials, and both the prosecution and defense attorneys commonly call experts to the witness stand as part of their presentation of evidence. There are forensic experts of every stripe, DNA experts, ballistic experts, behavioral experts, linguistic experts; if you can think of a category of evidence, there is probably an expert somewhere who is willing to come to court to testify about it. Their testimony is sometimes critical to the case, but it can often be technical and highly confusing. There are times when expert witnesses offer so much esoteric detail, that confusion, rather than clarity, results. The prosecutors and defense attorneys usually do their best to “translate” what the experts have provided, and ask follow-up questions of the experts in an effort to simplify concepts and make them accessible to the jury. It’s the jurors, after all, who will eventually have to make a decision here.

The attorneys aren’t the last people who will have to “translate” these concepts. The jurors will also find themselves re-communicating the expert testimony once they are assembled in the jury room for their final deliberation…


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