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JAMA Revisited
April 18, 2017

The Medical Expert

JAMA. 2017;317(15):1587. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.0644

If any further data are necessary to convince the most conservative that changes are needed with regard to expert testimony in our courts, the proceedings in the recent Thaw trial will certainly furnish them. Here weeks of time were consumed by the clashing of the alienists and the wrangles over their testimony; yet nothing could have been more futile or inconsequential than that testimony.

A juryman has graphically recorded his impressions and in terms singularly just. In examining one expert the attorney for the people displayed “an amazing grasp of an intricately technical subject.” The prosecutor is not, of course, a medical man; yet his knowledge of a matter essentially medical was manifestly much greater than that of the unhappy witness, and the proceedings were strongly suggestive of “a cat playing with a mouse.” Another alienist appeared, from the jury box, to be “one of those rare souls who are unconscious of time, since they inhabit eternity, and as his incumbency of the stand dragged through session after session the humor of the situation began to appeal even to the impatient twelve. After various imposing and impressively qualified alienists had promptly answered ‘rational’ to a hypothetical question an hour and a quarter long, various other equally imposing alienists with equally impressive qualifications answered the same question quite as promptly with the word ‘irrational’.” It seemed to this juryman time wasted to have placed these experts on the stand to give answers so foreordained; they might best have been stood up in line and cancelled in pairs so that by a sort of reductio ad absurdum it might be seen by the remainder which side to credit.

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