Study after study shows that juries put a great deal of faith in the testimony of expert witnesses. A good expert witness can swing a verdict one way or another. But how reliable are they? CBS News 48 Hours' "Expert Witness" takes a look at several incredible cases in which experts made the difference - sometimes helping the innocent prove their innocence, other times helping send the innocent to jail.
Here are some of the cases covered by 48 Hours:
Terri Hinson, a criminal law student living in North Carolina. In November 1996, a fire burned down her house, killing her 1-year-old son Joshua. Police accused Terri of setting the fire herself. Authorities took away her daughter and put her in a foster home, and Terri was charged with first-degree murder. Put under house arrest, she bought a computer and logged onto the Internet. By searching on the Web, she came across Texas fire expert Jerry Hurst, who is critical of the way many fires are investigated.
The Web offers a series of sites devoted to expert testimony.
Hurst offered to work for free and, via email, looked into the case. He noticed that the fire appeared to have started with a faulty wire connected to a heater. The heater had been plugged in for the first time the night of the fire. After Hurst showed his evidence to the prosecutor and his expert, all charges were dropped. She got her daughter back, and is now training to be an expert in arson investigations. "The bottom line is," Terri says, "the Internet saved my life."
- Jim Richardson also was accused of murder in a fire-related death. Ten years ago, Richardson was standing outside his father's house in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, when he saw flames. He ran to the burning house, kicked in the door, and carried 3-year-old Lindsay Gilfilen to safety.
Inside the house, police found the charred body of Lindsay's mother, Kelli. She had been bound, raped, and beaten to death. Prosecutors almost immediately arrested Richardson for the crime. He was convicted, largely on the basis of testimony from Fred Zain, a West Virginia State Police expert who told the jury that Richardson's semen had been found on the victim. Richardson, who never admitted guilt, was sentenced to a life term, and spent the past eight years in prison.
But then, when another rape conviction was thrown out after Zain's testimony was shown to be inaccurate, the state investigated Zain anfound that he had falsified evidence in hundreds of cases.
Eyewitness Authority: An expert on eyewitness testimony takes a look at courtroom myths and misconceptions.
Richardson and his lawyer, George Castelle, went back and took another look at the case. They found enormous holes in his conclusions, and also found that the police had withheld evidence, including a flashlight soaked with blood that was neither Richardson's nor the victim's. A judge threw out Richardson's case and let him out of prison. Richardson now has a wife and a newborn baby, Isaac Castelle Richardson.
As for Zain, he claimed during an interview with 48 Hours that he had done nothing wrong. Charges against Zain for fraud were dismissed.(West Virginia's three-year statute of limitations has largely prevented the state from bringing perjury charges against him.)
Richardson, though, is still in limbo, waiting to hear if he will be reindicted on the rape and murder charges. He is thinking about suing the state police if and when he is fully exonerated. But for now, the special prosecutor has scheduled an appeal for October 1999.
- Gerry Lefcourt, a prominent defense attorney, and Greg Garrison, an experienced former prosecutor. With the help of expert witnesses, these two battle it out in a made-for-TV trial constructed by 48 Hours to show how persuasive experts can be. Will the experts help lead the jury to the truth? In this case anyway, the answer is no! Persuasive testimony pushes the jury to decide that the guilty "defendant" is innocent.
CBS News Poll: Evidence vs. Eyes
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Produced by David Kohn