Lessons from the courtroom for scientists

What do jury members ultimately base their decisions on when the evidence is laid out in court?
Charlotte Shipman
Charlotte Shipman

That depends on how compellingly the evidence has been presented says Charlotte Shipman, a Wellington-based 3 News reporter who covered the murder of Scott Guy and the subsequent trial of accused Ewen Macdonald, who in July was found not guilty of Guy’s murder.

In court each day following the trial, Shipman says she saw meticulously gathered and presented forensic evidence from ESR scientists overwhelmed by the showmanship and compelling presentation of Macdonald’s lawyer, the late Greg King.
Forensic evidence in the trial centered on analysis of footprints found around the body of Guy, which were ascertained to have been made by a certain type of dive boot.
ESR presented 960 pages of forensic analysis and four hours of expert testimony in court.
“Defence counsel Greg King did one thing to undo all of that,” says Shipman, speaking as part of a panel discussion this week in Wellington organised by the Science Communicator’s Association.

“He just counted the number of ridges on the sample 9 boot that the Crown had. That had 29 ridges. These three partial impressions around the body had 32 or 32 ridges. The impressions could not have been made by this sample size 9 boot.”

“It was this ‘aha’ moment for the jury. You watch them in court for hours. It was like a penny dropped for them and they thought ‘I can understand this, I’m gonna go with this’.”

“I believe that the jury then disregarded that science, simply because Greg King’s method was easier to understand.”

Shipman said there are valuable lessons in that courtroom anecdote for scientists attempting to communicate to the public.

“If you have an analogy or something you can work with for the layperson, it makes a world of difference.”

Adversarial system

ESR forensic scientist Keith Bedford said the “adversarial system” used in our courtrooms meant the perception created by how evidence and testimony is presented, can have a bearing on case outcomes.

“In the theatre that is the criminal justice system, if you have a report of what the prosecution says on one day, it can sound like an open and shut case. If you have a presentation on what the defense is putting up on another day, it can sound like a potential miscarriage of justice.”

These perceptions were often carried over into the media, which he gave a “mixed scorecard” for its coverage of the science of crime.

“Particularly in the current environment when increasingly the media are looking for soundbites, that sort of tabloid style, quick headlines, its very difficult to effectively and fairly provide a balanced account of the processes of the criminal justice system.”

“Many people get their concept of the guilt or innocence of somebody just from the TV news headlines.”

Shipman said the format of primetime TV news meant the need for decent science communication was even greater.

“What is the alternative when you have a news bulletin that is an hour long and has 25 stories in it?”

Full audio from the SCANZ panel discussion on the science of crime and how it is communicated is available here.

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