William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

Thursday, 26, June, 2008

Speaker for the Dead

Filed under: Forensics,Social Ostracism — williamthecoroner @ 20:55

As a forensic pathologist, I have had to testify fairly regularly.  Greg Davis of the Kentucky State Medical Examiner’s office has a wonderful rule, which I keep to “You [the pathologist] doesn’t have a dog in this fight.”  (As an aside, he also has some podcasts, which can be accessed HERE).  The forensic pathologist is (usually) a county or a state employee. The forensic pathologist is usually called by the prosecution, but he doesn’t work FOR the prosecution.  You do develop a working relationship with the prosecutors, because you work with them time and again, but that it happens with any attorney you work with over time.  I have been used as an expert by one defense attorney for four or five times now.  It’s a good thing, he is used to my style, I’m used to his, and he knows he’ll get a good report in reasonable time.

The defense attorney is important.  You never realize how many people work for the prosecutor’s side until you look.  The state has a much bigger budget than most people, and many more resources.  A zealous defense is important in this situation.  I’ve never minded testimony too much.  It’s on the record, the prosecutor is there to object if things get out of hand, and most judges I’ve met don’t have a lot of patience for shenanigans.  Finally, I’ve been yelled at (and graded) by humourless surgical attendings.  Attorneys are restricted to parliamentary language, usually.  They’re also not grading your performance.

A zealous defense, however, does not mean harming the victim again.  That’s what I disliked about Massachusetts State Representative James Fagan’s statement about what a defense attorney would have to do to a [six-year-old] child witness if the bill he was arguing against passed.  The key graf is: I’m gonna rip them apart. I’m going to make sure that the rest of their life is ruined, that when they’re 8 years old, they throw up; when they’re 12 years old, they won’t sleep; when they’re 19 years old, they’ll have nightmares and they’ll never have a relationship with anybody.”and the full story is here

You gotta make the prosecution prove their case.  You gotta make sure they’ve got the right person.  To threaten to harm children again to do that (to save the perpetrator from draconian punishments, that was Mr. Fagan’s point) does not sit well with me.  I will also point out that the good, competent defense attorneys don’t DO these things.  Spend enough time around lawyers, particularly watching them in action, you can tell who you’d call if you needed one and who is a legend in their own mind.  The bright ones, the ethical ones don’t revictimize the victims.  It’s a good way to turn off the jury.

It is sad how the murder victims, my patients, don’t really have anyone to speak for them as time goes on.  There is no tradition of a Speaker for the Dead.  Lester Adelson of the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office once referred to a forensic pathologist as the “family physician for the bereaved”.  That’s a worthy goal, I think.

By the by, Mr. Fagan’s contact information is here.  He also chairs the Massachusetts House Ethics Committee.  Both the LawDog and the Bayou Renaissanceman brought this to my attention.


  1. I just left a long comment over at lawdog about it.

    We’re lucky there are men like you two in the world.

    Comment by Brigid — Saturday, 28, June, 2008 @ 13:47 | Reply

  2. I think when you read his entire speech, he doesn’t come off as quite the heinous jackass. Very sloppy way of putting it, though, and bound to be misinterpreted.

    Comment by Shay — Sunday, 29, June, 2008 @ 22:27 | Reply

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