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What is a Forensic Expert Witness?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated: May 16, 2024

Forensic comes from a Latin word meaning “public” or “forum,” and in English, it can mean “used in courts of law.” Forensic science, then, is any field of science as it applies to the law, and a forensic expert witness is a forensic scientist from any field who provides testimony to a court or in court.

A forensic expert witness may be involved in one of any number of areas of scientific pursuit. He or she may be an anthropologist, a biochemist, a chemist, a dentist, a medical examiner, a psychologist, a psychophysiologist, a toxicologist, or an expert in areas such as ballistics, computers, crime scene reconstruction, fingerprints, firearms, explosives, handwriting, textiles, or toolmarks.

A forensic expert witness is often involved in criminal cases from shortly after the crime is discovered. She or he may be present at the crime scene and involved in examining and collecting physical evidence from the site, using appropriate kits for biological evidence and footprints, collecting impressions of fingerprints, and gathering specimens of other pertinent evidence. Documenting the scene with written records and photographs is another aspect of the job.

The forensic scientist’s role often includes work in a laboratory, examining and analyzing evidence with tools and techniques specific to his or her specialty. Depending on that specialty, the forensic scientist may use certain tools that are standard in many laboratories. Examples include tools such as chromatographs, spectrographs, and scanning electron microscopes, depending on whether the scientist is, for example, analyzing drugs, chemicals, or comparing very small amounts of questionable material with known material, respectively.

There are also tasks that are more particular to forensic science. Often, this may involve analysis done with or through software or database interfaces. For example, when seeking to match unidentified DNA found at a crime scene, the forensic scientist might tap into resources such as DNA sequence analysis software and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). When seeking to establish the identity of crime scene fingerprints, fingerprint identification systems, such as Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) or Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) may be used.

Both the prosecution and the defense in criminal trials and both the defendant and the plaintiff in civil trials may call for forensic expert witness testimony. Findings or opinions of forensic expert witnesses may either be presented as reports, or they may be asked to appear in court. There is special training available for forensic scientists who are going to be asked to make court appearances.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for MyLawQuestions, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By ceilingcat — On Oct 03, 2011

@sunnySkys - I know that's just a television show, but I imagine that could be a real problem. Most people on a jury aren't going to be experts in what the witness is talking about. So it's important for the forensic expert to explain it in a way the jury can actually understand so they can make an accurate vote on the case!

I think I would be scared to act as an expert witness. I imagine if you did so in enough cases, you would probably make a bunch of criminals angry. It would be easy for someone to come after you after their prison term is up.

By sunnySkys — On Oct 03, 2011

One of my favorite television shows features a forensic expert witness. Well, actually she's a forensic anthropologist but she sometimes act as a forensic expert witness too!

The show is Bones, and it is awesome! The lead character is extremely smart, but somewhat socially awkward. She runs into trouble as a forensic witness sometimes, because juries have a hard time relating to all of her smart-person jargon. However, as the show has progressed, she's gotten a bit better about using "normal" words when she goes to court.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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