Challenges Facing Psychiatric & Toxicological Expertise

Prompt: Compare and contrast the challenges facing psychiatric & toxicological expertise in the nineteenth century “Adversarial Courtroom”, and the strategies they adopted to legitimate their knowledge. 

The involvement of experts in courts to provide expert testimony is not a new practice. As far back as the Middle Ages, physicians, sea captains, and other experts have been called on to help or testify in English courts when the facts of the case were so complicated that the judge or jury did not have adequate knowledge to make a decision (Essig 2002). Before the 18th century, judges and juries actively took part in gathering and presenting evidence, and experts often served as official advisors to courts or juries. When the legal system underwent the adversarial revolution in the 18th century, however, this situation changed as judges and juries took on more passive and neutral roles in the collection and presentation of evidence. Consequently, litigants took active charge of gathering and presenting evidence in a structured forensic setting (Essig 2002). This change saw the role of experts in courts change from being (impartial) court advisors or members of the jury to being partisan witnesses (Eigen 1995; Watson, 2006). In their roles as partisan witnesses, the experts faced a myriad of challenges which they sought to overcome through different means. This paper seeks to compare and contrast the challenges facing psychiatric and toxicological expertise in the nineteenth century “Adversarial Courtroom”, and the strategies they adopted to legitimate their knowledge.

One of the challenges faced by toxicological expertise in the adversarial court in the 1800s was to do with the transfer of knowledge from the laboratory to the courtroom. In an adversarial system, it was the norm that all expert testimony would be met with contradictions that had the potential to damaged the image of the professions that the expert witnesses represented. On the witness stand, toxicologists, psychiatrists and indeed other experts presented evidence that (scientifically) contradicted those presented by the opposing side. The effect of this was that the public developed serious doubts about the integrity of the expert witnesses and the science they professed.  In some cases, the toxicologists, physicians, and psychiatrists, in their positions as expert witnesses, were accused of   being incompetent or corrupt. In response to these accusations, the expert witnesses often cited their credibility.

In Mary Fleming’s murder trial that took place in 1896, for example, her lawyers questioned the reputation of a German chemist by the name Walter Scheele (Essig 2002). continue reading …

Challenges Facing Psychiatric & Toxicological Expertise …

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