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Trillian's avatar

Are "expert" witnesses ever held responsible?

Asked by Trillian (21099points) March 16th, 2012

A discussion in another thread started me wondering -
If a court decides to let a person, who has committed some sort of violent crime, out of a mental institution based on testimony given by a psychiatrist who says that society has nothing to fear from this person, and the person then commits another crime; is that psychiatrist accountable?
As I understand it, one can find an expert witness to match what either the prosecution or defense want to prove, so the poor dope making the final decision still has a tough decision to make. The one psychiatrist had this to say in the article from the other thread; “There is no reason, either medical or in terms of the danger he poses, that he should stay in hospital,”
That’s a pretty ballsy statement. Does this person have anything riding on the veracity of his statement?
Is there a precedent for this? Can he be held responsible?

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17 Answers

dappled_leaves's avatar

Your question made me think of this recent case in Canada. He was relieved of his medical licence last year. Doesn’t look like he got any jail time, though.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I know expert witnesses can be sued for not performing up to their professional standards, but I’m not sure if they are able to be sued for the actions of the person they said was no longer a danger to society. They could probably be sued by the family, but I wonder if they could have criminal liability as well.

nikipedia's avatar

This is not related to psychiatric illnesses but to experts in general—there was a case that began last year (and may be ongoing) in Italy following a deadly earthquake. Six seismologists were tried for manslaughter for failing to warn the local people about the earthquake.

marinelife's avatar


There was a horrible domestic violence killing that occurred here recently because the judge let the perp go with no jail time and no bond requirements after he violated a restraining order his wife had taken out three times in 72 hours. The next day he killed her. The judge is being held accountable only in the court of public opinion.

Seaofclouds's avatar

@marinelife That is the judge in the case, that’s different from an expert witness. Expert witnesses use to be immune from being sued, but that was recently stopped (within the past few years). Judges have different protections.

HungryGuy's avatar

I don’t know, but I think they should be. And both ways, too! I.e., if a witness causes an innocent person to be convicted and later exhonerated, that witness should be liable for mega buckazoids, just as much as a witness that results in a dangerous criminal being set free.

Trillian's avatar

@nikipedia Having some experience with Italian mindset, I’m really not surprised. Hopefully, sanity will prevail there.
@marinelife, that’s monstrous.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@Trillian CBC’s The Fifth Estate has done a couple of documentaries around this subject. I was going to link one, but then realized they’re not viewable outside of Canada. What a horror for families accused of crimes they didn’t commit.

wundayatta's avatar

It seems to me that expert witnesses should be pretty careful about what they say and how they say it. You would never guarantee a criminal had gone straight or someone who was mentally ill would never get sick again. That would be very foolish, I think. You’d deserve to get jail time if you were foolish enough to promise something like that.

So if you are careful, I think you couch things in terms of probabilities and that’s that.

flutherother's avatar

Giving expert testimony is not the same as giving a guarantee of good behaviour. An expert can give an opinion based on his knowledge and experience but that all it is, an informed opinion. We can never expect experts of whatever kind to be infallible.

Trillian's avatar

@wundayatta and @flutherother right, but this guy said…. well the quote is above. That’s why I called it a ballsy statement. No dithering, no prevarication, no couching in probabilities, just; no reason for him to stay in the hospital.
So basically (Hah! There it is again!) he’s telling the judge that it’s ok to let the guy out. It seems to me that he shouldn’t be allowed a loophole later if the guy commits further violence.
And btw, has anyone looked at the very real possibility that this man is a sociopath? He certainly fits the behaviours.

wundayatta's avatar

An expert who states future predictions unequivocably is an idiot. The court should be held responsible for believing an expert statement like that, it seems to me. They should know better than to trust an expert witness who makes things black and white. That’s just plain ridiculous!

Trillian's avatar

@wundayatta, that’s kind of what I was thinking.
What about the other thing I mentioned? The fact that he now feels like he just wants to go back to work and start a new family, ho hum… does that not seem without remorse or a grasp of what has actually happened? It’s like he just got mad and scribbled in black all over his coloring page and now wants to start on a new one… I don’t know. I felt like there were sociopath vibes but of course, I don’t have all the facts, just what the news reported.
Any thoughts about that particular aspect?

wundayatta's avatar

I’m a little confused. Who is the he? The Expert witness?

Trillian's avatar

Oh…. no. Sorry. The defendant; He killed his kids, got out of going to jail, and now, less than a year after he was found too nutty to be held accountable he wants to just go back to work and start another family. Like nothing ever happened and everyone will just say “Hey Phil, how ya been? Here’s what’s on the schedule for today.”
I feel like the thought process indicates sociopathic tendencies.

Patton's avatar

Expert witnesses are reliable for perjury, but not for the behaviors of other people. If they lie, they are subject to punishment. If they tell the truth, that’s what they were brought to court to do. They aren’t soothsayers, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

wundayatta's avatar

So the defendant is out of jail? Or wants to be let out of jail?

The thing is, if he was really insane, and he is now taking his meds, he really can be a different person. The problem is that he could get sick again and then the same kind of behavior could happen again. What if he stops taking his meds? What if he stops going to therapy? What if he doesn’t take care of himself when he gets depressed?

Staying will requires a lot of support. If this guy has a support network and if people make sure he takes his meds and attends group meetings and does all the things he needs to stay well, then he could really have turned around and may stay productive. But we always have to watch for him getting sick again and dropping off the radar and then doing who knows what?

Frankly, I don’t think the justice system is built to help keep people sane. I wouldn’t want to let him out unless I knew he had a support system. I also think a year is too soon. Recovery from mental illness takes many years, as far as I can tell. I’ve been doing it for four years and I’m still the person in my group with the least experience in mental illness.

But I don’t know what the law says.

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