April 25, 2014 | by H.C. Wood Jr., M.D.
It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific prose available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: “Medical Expert Evidence,” a treatise first published in Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science in April 1873.
There is scarcely any position of more responsibility than that of the medical expert in cases of alleged poisoning. Often he stands with practically absolute power between society and the accused—the former looking to him for the proof of the crime and for the protection which discovery brings; the latter relying upon him for the vindication of his innocence. How profound and complete, then, should be his knowledge! how thorough his skill! how pure and spotless his integrity! how unimpeachable his results! Yet recently the humiliating spectacle has been repeatedly presented of expert swearing against expert, until the question at issue was apparently degraded into one of personal feeling or of professional reputation. So far has this gone that both judicial and public opinion seems to be demanding the abolition of expert testimony. The medical expert must, however, remain an essential feature in our criminal procedures, partaking as he does of the functions of the lawyer, inasmuch as he has, to some extent, the right to argue before the jury, partaking also of the judicial character in that it is his duty to express an opinion upon evidence, but differing from both judge and advocate in that as a witness he testifies to facts. Were the attempt made to do away with his functions, there would be an end to just convictions in the class of cases spoken of, because no one would be qualified to say whether any given death had been produced by poison or by a natural cause.
In many matters that come under the notice of medical experts there is room for honest differences of opinion. Of such nature are questions of sanity and insanity. It must be remembered that these are, after all, relative terms. Reason leaves its seat by almost imperceptible steps. Who can determine with exactness the line that separates eccentricity from madness—responsibility from irresponsibility? Moreover, the phenomena upon which opinion is based are, in such cases, so hidden, so complex, so obscure, that in the half-lights of a few short interviews they will often be seen differently by different observers.
In scarcely any of its parts does toxicology belong to this class of subjects—certainly not at all in so far as it deals with mineral poisons. To a great extent it is a fixed science—a science whose boundaries may be widened, whose processes may be rendered more delicate, but whose principles are in great measure settled for ever. Not in the imperfections of the science, but in the habits of the American medical profession and in the methods of our criminal procedures, lies the origin of the evils complained of.Read More »