Monday, September 12, 2005
Famed Forensic Consultant Urges Judges to Question Experts
By J’AMY PACHECO, Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO — Courts can more effectively fulfill their truth-seeking mission if judges question expert witnesses, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz told California jurists and lawyers Friday.
Dietz is president of the consulting firm of Dietz and Associates in Newport Beach and has worked on high profile cases involving John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Betty Broderick, Cary Stayner and Andrea Yates. He made his remarks during the State Bar Luncheon, co-sponsored by Continuing Education of the Bar. The event was part of the State Bar Annual Meeting held Thursday through yesterday in San Diego.
Questioning by judges, Dietz opined, leads to a “fuller disclosure” of where an expert stands on an issue.
“I very much like the idea of judges taking an active role in the questioning of experts,” he stated.
Requiring video and audio taped documentation of early interviews in criminal cases would also aid in the courts’ quest for truth, he suggested.
Dietz recalled a case involving a woman accused of murdering her children, in which her attorneys had a psychiatrist create video recordings of early interviews with their client.
Government experts didn’t see those interviews until much later in the criminal prosecution, but “had the benefit” of those interviews, he said. Without them, he acknowledged, “it could have been a much more contentious trial.”
“Instead, all the experts agreed how sick she was,” he said. Having early documentation, which included those videotaped interviews, helped the judicial system arrive at the truth, he recalled.
It was his work on the case involving would-be presidential assassin Hinckley that helped form his belief in the value of using a scientific approach to analyze a case, he said.
Dietz said he worked on the Hinckley case when he was “young and fresh” enough to try a new approach, and worked with a prosecutor who allowed him the freedom to break with the tradition of coming to a psychiatric opinion after interviewing the defendant and reading police reports.
On the Hinckley case, Dietz related, he and his colleagues “were asked to find out what really happened.” They interviewed proximal witnesses and collateral witnesses, and visited scenes associated with the case. At each location, he recalled, items were found that contributed to investigators” knowledge of the defendant and his actions.
At the Hinckley residence, for example, a target was found hidden in the closet, providing information about his shooting skills. At the Hilton Hotel where Hinckley shot then-President Ronald Reagan, discovery of the curvature to an outside wall helped explain why Hinckley didn’t take a shot when the president arrived, and instead waited until Reagan was leaving the building and he had a better shot.
“That tells us about his capacity to control impulses,” Dietz explained.
When Dietz shook out a Band-Aid can found in Hinckley”s suitcase, he found a previously overlooked document, “a skyjack note.” The note, he continued, explained why Hinckley had a plastic gun in his suitcase.
By reading the same books Hinckley had been determined to have read, Dietz said he discovered the note had been copied from a book.
“Lead by lead, we came to understand in a deeper way what brought him to that point, and what he was influenced by,” Dietz related.
His work on that case, he said, led him to realize “how superficial[ly] everything else I’d done had been done.”
He continues to be bothered, he said, by the fact that few cases have the resources to get the attention that leads to the depth of understanding that developed in the Hinckley case.
“What about the rest,” he asked.
Dietz told the audience that the “true role” of an expert witness is that of a scientist, educator, interpreter and imperfect truth-seeker.
“Great” experts share six common characteristics, he said, regardless of discipline: excellent credentials, intense preparation, strong communication skills, honesty, reasonableness, and rapport with jurors. They also charge too much, because they are in high demand, he quipped.
During the luncheon, CEB honored 12 volunteer attorneys and authors who teach and write for the organization. Those present to be recognized were Donn Kemble, Susan T. House, Mark L. Tuft and William A. Robinson. Not present were Roger Bernhardt, Sandra Blair, Allan Browne, Louis E. Goebel, Edward C. Halbach, Jr., E. Ludlow Keeney, Jr., Raoul D. Kennedy and Charles Lawrence Swezey.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company