Confessions Of An Expert Witness

expert witnessAny fan of courtroom dramas knows there's frequently a scene in the show where an expert witness is called to the stand to help jurors better understand the case being tried before them.

Whether gained through training, education, experience or profession, the knowledge that expert witnesses possess have a place in many trials. Their testimony can help dispel myths and correct misconceptions that may result in a more just verdict.

Though it may look easy, a lot of work goes into being an effective expert witness, says forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, herself an expert witness who has been retained in more than 200 civil and criminal cases during the last 18 years.

The New York City native spends many hours before each case, she says, getting to know the plaintiff or defendant on whose behalf she may testify.

"I go into every aspect of their life," including whether the subjects were abused as children or adults, she says. "You need to know what the person was like before they had the experience that brought them into the courtroom."

Lieberman also performs a psychological test that takes as long as two hours. "But most of the time is spent face-to-face asking them detailed questions about their lives and eventually the experience that we're all here for," she says.

A lot of expert witnesses don't bother, spending maybe a couple hours before the trial and focus mainly on the event, says Lieberman, author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets. "And they don't understand who the person is at all, which his how I'm able to win."

Lieberman says that she splits her time equally among her patients and medical students; media appearances; writing books and making speeches; and being an expert witness in courtrooms around the country.

One of the more famous cases in which Lieberman testified was the so-called "Jenny Jones Show" murder trial, which stemmed from the 1995 killing of Scott Amedure, who appeared on Jones' talk show.

Amedure, 32, claimed to be the secret admirer of then 24-year-old Jonathan Schmitz and wanted to divulge the crush on national TV. Schmitz, however, said that he went on the show believing that it was a woman who fancied him.

From the New York Daily News, dated March 11, 1995, two days after Amedure was killed:

Once on the show, a stunned Schmitz found out that the person who wanted him was a man, Scott Amedure.

[Schmitz] was so upset about the Monday taping and an unsigned love note found on his door Thursday that he bought a 12-gauge shotgun, drove to Amedure's home and shot him twice in the chest [and killed him].

During Schmitz's trial, Lieberman testified that the murder suspect wasn't mentally sound. The former waiter was manic depressive and had attempted suicide, she says.

Lieberman's testimony included video of the "Jenny Jones" episode that showed Schmitz slipping into a manic phase as the program progressed. He "just started to disintegrate, mentally," she says.

Schmitz feared that the airing of the show would "out" him as gay man to his homophobic family, even though he himself wasn't gay. Lieberman says that her analysis suggested that Schmitz murdered Amedure as a proxy for his own father.

Watch: Jenny Jones Testifies, April 1999

Lieberman's testimony proved effective. Schmitz was found guilty of the lesser charge of second degree murder -- not first degree murder -- because of "reduced capacity."

It was a "really complicated case" that was oversimplified by the media, Lieberman says. News reports at time attributed Schmitz's actions to "gay panic," a questionable defense that seeks to justify defendants' actions because of their prejudices toward gay people.

Lieberman says that her track record for winning cases in which she testifies for the plaintiff or defendant is "incredibly good," though it can be "incredibly stressful."

"I always promise myself I'm going to get a massage after the trial," she says jokingly.

Still, she says, her commitment to seeing justice done makes the stress worth her time.

"It's very rewarding in the end, when you've gotten the jury to understand it in the way that you [explained]."

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