back to article Tales from an expert witness: Lasers, guns and singing Santas

John Watkinson is an expert witness. Here he explains what it’s about and how it works as one of a number of lines of enquiry by the legal system – each requiring the same amount of rigour. The purpose of any court is the difficult job of sifting the reality from the pork pies. This is a task usually achieved by attributing …


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  1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Very interesting read!!

    Thanks for that

    1. Mike Bell

      Re: Very interesting read!!

      Agreed. Good stuff.

  2. James 51

    Very entertaining and interesting.

  3. HKmk23

    Should be compulsory reading for plebs (sorry plods)

    Probably the best article I have read in the register, I fully endorse the comment regarding writing everything down, I have many times paraphrased the statement " a verbal statement is not worth the paper it is not written down on" but people still think it is not necessary to record everything.

    Well done.

  4. Alan Ferris

    Does the expert witness have to get his facts right?

    Or would Sir Samuel Meadow actually be Professor Sir Roy Meadow?

    1. Kubla Cant

      Re: Does the expert witness have to get his facts right?

      A fascinating article. But am I the only reader to detect a conceited "I'm a scientist, so I'm always right" attitude? The author's belief in the infallibility of his methods is strikingly similar to the policeman's belief in the infallibility of his speed gun.

      A bit more humility about the fallibility of the system he works in wouldn't be amiss. His attitude to the Sally Clark case, an appalling tragedy that resulted directly from the shortcomings of the expert witness system, seems to be "Shit happens".

      1. Trollslayer

        Re: Does the expert witness have to get his facts right?


        Look carefully and he is, first and foremost, an analyst.

        I am in a similar situation in some respects.

        I am a test engineer at a semiconductor company and deal with the more peripheral testing - power consumption, response to odd use cases etc. which means working across groups of people with their own (often very) narrow specialisations.

        A common problem is that they focus on their area and simply don't take other areas seriously, sometimes to the point of making an arbitrary assumption and later stating it as fact.

        The tricky part is drawing out from people what is really happening in their area and then aligning information and communicating what is happening.

        A combination of consistent attention to detail, cat herding and running a kindergarten.

      2. John 62

        Re: Does the expert witness have to get his facts right?

        Actually, I didn't get the impression that the author thinks he's always right, more that he think he's better because he didn't play sports and has a different vocabulary from a 5-year-old.

        I'm not going to justify all premier league footballers. Some act like thoroughly horrible people, but then there are thoroughly horrible people everywhere, not just in football. But let's remember Paul said that different people have different abilities. Not all are suited to football and not all are suited to in-depth technical analysis. 'Orses for courses, innit! Not all footballers are of limited academic ability and those that do not have much academic ability have likely spent as long as, or even longer training to play football than the author spent with his books. Some sportsmen seem to simply have innate ability, but the best really do properly discipline themselves to hone their skills.

    2. hammarbtyp

      Re: Does the expert witness have to get his facts right?

      Well his full name is Sir Samuel Roy Meadow, so I guess you are both right

  5. El Presidente

    loudspeaker cones from a company that builds Formula 1 cars?

    Good article but, as usual, it's missing something.

    This time it's a Link to where you can buy loudspeaker cones from a company that builds Formula 1 cars.

    6/10 see me after.

    1. Glenn Booth

      Re: loudspeaker cones from a company that builds Formula 1 cars?

      @El Presidente : This time it's a Link to where you can buy loudspeaker cones from a company that builds Formula 1 cars.

      Might that be Tag Mc.Laren? Just a guess. I don't even know if they are still trading. or whether we should talk of TAG, McLaren, Audiolab or IAG.

  6. hammarbtyp

    Better education needed..

    The main problem with expert witness is when they give opinion on evidence in which they have no expert knowledge. In the case of Sir Samuel Meadow in hindsight it was obvious that he had made some basic and fundamental mistakes in his statistical calculations that at the time he should of been called up for it.

    Unfortunately being called an expert is a catch all title and the jury is likely to be given increased credence to their opinion even when it is one they are not qualified to give it. Saying that it is a testament to the average mathematical ability in the judiciary that it was not queried at the time by either the judge of the defense team.

    Lack of scientific knowledge can often lead to people being conned. Cyber security is always one area where I get bombarded by panicked relatives because they have read that because they looked at a jpeg in their browser their computer is now terminally infected.

    1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

      Re: Better education needed..

      ...The main problem with expert witness(es?) is when they give opinion on evidence in which they have no expert knowledge....

      There are also problems when they give evidence on a subject where they think they have knowledge where what they have is religious belief.

      James Hansen was an expert witness at the 'Kingsnorth Six' trial, getting the defendants off because they were 'saving the world'. That was 5 years ago, and we now know that the danger was hopelessly overstated...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Better education needed..

      "should of been called up for it."

      Better education definitely needed.

      "should have" (etc) can legitimately be shortened to "should've".

      "should of" (etc) is a credibility destroyer (whether it's right or wrong language is irrelevant, it simply destroys the author's credibility).

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reverse gear synch

    The problem is the only vehicle I know of that has synchromesh on reverse is a Lamborghini. That precise phrase was incorporated in the report that resulted in a new gearbox being fitted under warranty.

    Weird, I have come across this a lot, even on an older Audi S4 Quattro. Otherwise, a really good read, thanks.

    1. tomban

      Re: Reverse gear synch

      Indeed, I stopped reading at that point.

      I don't know about Audis but I know both the Ford MT75 and MTX-75 gearboxes have synchromesh on reverse.

    2. Cynical Shopper

      Re: Reverse gear synch

      Either this is about a case in the '70s (about a real Mini, not the sort pictured), or this dude needs to get with it. My 2002 Seat Leon had synchromesh on reverse.

      Regardless, a synchromesh allows you to select the gear without waiting (or double declutching), not the other way round.

  8. Lottie

    "I could write a book about these stories, and it wouldn’t be fiction."

    I would probably buy that book.

    Although, there are a few manufacturers (including BMW who make the mini) that sell transmissions in Europe with synchro on their reverse gears.

    1. Dave 62

      Re: "I could write a book about these stories, and it wouldn’t be fiction."

      I think I'd buy that too.

      Bit embarrassed that I didn't know that about reverse gears though :s

      I've never owned a car where you didn't have to wait though, something to do with the engine reaching idle, which can take some time (more than you'd expect from a normal run down) as the idle valve or etb will usually slow it down over the last few rpm to prevent it dropping too low or whatever (not my area :p), you can't pull forward then immediately slam into reverse, particularly if you've still got some forward momentum.

      It is utterly baffling and infuriating when the trade do this, "the profession" generally prefer to do it right, get a root cause, make sure it doesn't happen again. I don't understand why car makers don't try to enforce a little honesty on their main stealers.

  9. squigbobble

    My 2p reverse gear synchro

    'Cos the gearbox on an unloved Getz would probably work better with a 2p rattling around inside it.

    Errr... my point, yes. The garage could've actually got away with telling them the real reason why she couldn't get it into reverse- there's no synchro on reverse so the teeth on the dog clutch don't always line up properly and you can't engage the gear.

    For added jollity, Getzes don't have a synchro on 1st either, something I had to divine from a vague reference in the manual about have to momentarily release the clutch to get it into 1st, a la reverse. This is a shit load of fun in slow traffic, to the point that I've taken to trying double declutching it to get down into 1st while still rolling and that only works half the time :/ At least it was cheap and it's easy to work on.

    1. David Roberts

      Re: My 2p reverse gear synchro

      A tip from the time when there wasn't synchromesh on 1st gear in most cars:

      Assuming second gear is opposite 1st, with clutch disengaged pull the gear lever half way back into second, then push forward into first.

      This seemed to work when the car was still rolling - allegedly the synchromesh on 2nd gets everything synchronised up for first gear.

      Back in the day, older cars tended to have worn synchromesh on all gears anyway so it did encourage you to learn to double de-clutch.

      Don't think this trick works for reverse, though, but I could be wrong.

  10. Tim Parker

    "These events led me to the conclusion that, at least in my case, educational techniques and sport were mutually exclusive and that the essentialness of sport to a rounded education was a myth of the same magnitude as any of those in The History of Herodotus."

    'Rounded education' is usually (in my experience) intended to imply exposure to many different experiences, all of which contribute to the education process - as in 'round' as a synonym for 'whole' or 'complete'. It has never (again IME) been used to imply that a fully rounded education is essential to attain some type of academic level, or similar achievement.

    Given that, you could argue that sport is essential in a rounded education - but only in the sense that it would be incomplete without it. There is, however, much that can be learnt from various sporting endeavours outside of the gross physical and mental skills, some of which i'd consider to be highly educational. Moreover, given your almost complete lack of experience of sport, i'd say you were particularly ill-suited to comment of what insights it may have afforded you. To be honest, I also expected a tad less hubris in this regard from an 'expert witness' - or at the very least, a somewhat more visible appreciation of the limits of their knowledge.

    That aside, I found much of the article very interesting indeed.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    TL;DR: 'God, I'm wonderful'.

    There's a small bit of actual content, but not much.

    (Anon because I've been one and may be one in the same case as this guy.)

  12. ItsNotMe

    Beware of these so-called "Expert Witnesses"

    I had to sue a former dentist for malpractice, after having to have USD$11,000.00 of reconstructive surgery done on me. Paid out of pocket by me.

    My wife took the same scumbag through a similar case, but had to go through the local County Dental Association, (we had to go different routes too numerous to post here). She won her case, and the clown was required to refund the USD$5,000.00 she had spent on "work" he had done on her for a complete set of "caps". The ONLY positive thing the Dental Review Board said about her case was that the "aesthetics" were good, meaning the caps themselves, which he had no part in creating.

    ALL of his work was deemed poor, and sub-standard, and even dangerous (she had multiple gum infections because of his "work"). He was sanctioned by the review board, and made to refund the money spent.

    My case went through the local County Courts (a jury trial), and it was a sham. I had hired the supposed best legal firm dealing with medical malpractice (claimed they had a 98% win rate) on a contingency basis, so if things did not go my way, I paid them nothing. Good thing, because they didn't. Oh...and because of the wife's case against this prick could not be mentioned during my trial.

    I lost my case, due to one of these "Expert Witnesses" for the Dentist, who testified that he "knew I was predisposed to Periodontal Disease, because it ran in my family", even though in cross examining by my attorney, he admitted that he had never seen me before, had no knowledge of my, or my family's dental or medical history, had never seen my, or my family's dental or medical records, and had never examined me, or anyone in my family. He said...and I quote..."I just know." The jury bought this shit hook, line & sinker, and I lost my case. The judge was no better either. He sat on the bench and scoffed at much of my testimony. Another biased scumbag to be sure.

    Needless to say, my opinion of the legal system has gone right down the shitter. I have been called for jury duty several times now over the years since my trial, and as soon as I tell the lawyers of my little escapade in their courts, and how much I despise the whole system, I am released from jury duty instantaneously.

    So as far as I am concerned, most of these "expert witnesses" are PAID LIARS, and nothing more.

    1. AndyS

      Re: Beware of these so-called "Expert Witnesses"


      Uh, you do know this is a UK site, and we're talking about UK courts and UK expert witnesses here, right?

      Other than that, nice rant. It could have done with a few more random capitals, but it's a good start.

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

        Re: Beware of these so-called "Expert Witnesses"

        " Uh, you do know this is a UK site, and we're talking about UK courts and UK expert witnesses here, right?"

        So? Are you saying that Anericans aren't allowed to post here?

        His comment was on topic, as the article is about expert witnesses, not something that only occurs in the UK (even then, his opinion would still be valid)

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Couple of points

    One, the anti-sports tirade seems a bit out of place and misguided. In a comment above, Tim Parker expounds this point with great clarity. Aside from the social aspect, I'm with Juvenal and others on this one and believe that as a general rule physical well-being is a pre-condition for mental and intellectual well-being. I do not feel that inset added anything to the article, I regret to say.

    Second, as for the conditions to become an expert witness, it should be noted that in some countries, one needs to become formally accredited as such, with completion of certain courses (mainly covering the relevant aspects of law) being compulsory before one can apply.

    Third, in the closing paragraphs, Mr. Watkinson says that "one of the foundations of technical writing is to tell things in the right order so that one thing leads to the next". While that may be true of some aspects of technical writing, that really mostly applies to scientific work and is, again as a general rule, not an advisable approach for an expert witness statement. The latter is addressed to the court (judge and/or jury) and the first and foremost thing they want to know is "who done it"--in other words, your conclusions must be clearly and succinctly exposed at the very beginning of your statement. The details of how you arrived to that conclusion are certainly of primal importance and must be laid out, but the conclusion comes first, otherwise you're writing a detective novel not a witness statement. This is a mistake that almost every novice expert witness makes, myself included in my younger days, embarrassingly. :-)

    1. Dr Dan Holdsworth

      Re: Couple of points

      The anti-sports rant is, in my opinion, entirely justified. Games teachers have a well-deserved reputation for stupidity, and it is my experience that this took the form of never troubling to explain the rules of any game "taught" to us pupils. Rugby especially was never taught or explained, and thus in any given rugby game at school consisted largely of the few people who actually knew what was happening running around, lackadaisically pursued by the majority who hadn't a clue, and would much rather opt out of the entire mess.

      1. Mike Flex

        Re: Couple of points

        "this took the form of never troubling to explain the rules of any game "taught" to us pupils."

        Sounds familiar.

        To pick up one of AC's earlier points.

        "as a general rule physical well-being is a pre-condition for mental and intellectual well-being"

        Great as a general principle. Unfortunately school PE/Games was completely unable to deliver on this.

      2. Dave Bell

        Re: Couple of points

        That's the pattern I recall.

        And the teachers responsible also taught other subjects. I failed History O-level. The History teacher was one of the Sports teachers.

        Anecdotal evidence, but it supports the thesis that bad teachers can't teach anything.

        1. nsld

          Re: Couple of points

          Of course it never comes down to the minor issue that maybe you all just where not very good at sports?

          I say this as someone who is both a geek and who has decent enough motor skills to be good at sports, my head of P.E was an inspirational man who was both intelligent and driven by a purpose to see us do well.

          It is of course purely anecdotal but the vast majority of IT people are what we refer to lovingly as "motor morons" and never did well at sports involving strength, speed and coordination. Primarily this was down to a lack of practice.

          1. Jason Ozolins

            Re: Couple of points

            Guess what... it's a bit of both. I have Asperger's, so coordination and social skills weren't my strength. But I could sprint and do long jump, and I rode my bike 9km every school day for most of high school, so I was reasonably fit.

            But it was hardly "character building" to have some smug arse of a PE teacher making suggestions about my sexuality when I couldn't cope with the mixed ballroom dancing unit we had to do each winter. Physical contact made me really stressed, particularly when some of the girls we had to partner were actively participating in the bullying that was making it hard for me to do well in the subjects I actually cared about. It was actually the wife of the head P.E. teacher, also a P.E. teacher, who actually took a moment to find out what was going on with me, and arranged for me to go to the library and do something useful, instead of standing outside the hall each lesson to satisfy the vindictive streak of my teacher. Thanks, Mrs Moore... and yes, I somehow managed to get married to a woman and have a family, despite my flamingly effeminate stance against ballroom dancing.

            So yeah, I learned some things about character in P.E., but it was mainly about what sort of people I could trust in any way: not the ones who enjoyed causing suffering. Co-ordination is certainly important to your development as a well-rounded person... so just spend some time playing handball, tennis, frisbee and juggling to get over your "motor moronhood"; it's a lot more rewarding than being punched in the nuts in a rugby scrum by people who hate you.

          2. PassingStrange

            Re: Couple of points

            "It is of course purely anecdotal". Never were six truer words spoken.

            This is purely anecdotal as well. Having spent over three decades working for a well-known IT multinational (the last two in an absolute hive of geeks, namely a development lab of a couple of thousand people), I'd have to say that the rest of that is so far from accurate, in my own experience, that it's almost visible coming back round from the other side. IT folks are a mix of types just like any other group. In my time I saw the inevitable cross-section of types - some of whom would have been short of breath after climbing a flight of stairs - but if anything rather more of the folk I worked with were fit, sporty types than is my experience in the general population. Personally I suspect that the stereotype of the weedy, uncoordinated nerd is often simply a comfortable myth for those who don't find it easy to accept that there are people out there a whole lot brighter than they are - "At least I'm better than them at something...".

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They are fallible.

    By simply being nice to the policeman, and not treating him like some scum sucking pig, thus demonstrating the fallibility of the machine, I found that the speed camera was over-reading by 34 mph, and thus was only done for 96.

    (Just in case anyone in the IPCC is reading this with an intention of prosecuting the policeman for not jailing me, I can categorically say my recollection of the events may change by the time it gets to court.)

  15. TheGreenMachine

    Sorry I'm confused by the reverse gear thing either that or I've totally misunderstood what syncromesh does for years?

    She had problems getting it into reverse and was told to pause for a second - Standard practice for the majority of cars that don't have a syncomesh on reverse.

    That's why you get that "CRRRSHHAHAHBANG" if you try to whack it straight across into reverse without pausing, especially noticeable on Vauxhalls along with a squeaky clutch they all used to have.

    "It is of course correct that synchromesh gears take time to synchronise and a small pause helps that" -

    Yes but not as much time as a gearbox without Syncomesh did, thats why we used to have to double de-clutch into first as in olden times first gear didn't have a Syncro either.

    She was told she had to pause first , the box doesn't have syncro on reverse, that's valid advice - am I missing something?

    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Apparently the gearbox lady's problem wasn't that she was not waiting for reverse gear - she could have done that. The problem was that the diagnosis was wrong and the advice was wrong, she just had a rubbish gearbox. Presumably she was happy with the replacement she eventually got.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Other expert witnesses are available

    Ross Anderson on electronic tagging is a good read:

    I'm looking forward to when his team starts on safety critical software where faults may kill people (potentially, many people) rather than his usual territory where usually all that's at risk is money (the tagging thing was a refreshing change).

    Safety critical software is relevant to the recent court case in the US where Toyota are in the dock again over the outbreak of "uncommanded acceleration" in some of their cars a few years back. The outbreak was allegedly fixed by updated pedal mounts and floor mats and other similar low cost fixes. In this court case, there was no pre-trial settlement and details of the software have emerged. EE Times has plenty of interesting coverage (and comments): (and others)

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Over-reliance on what the manufacturer says

    On one hand, the manufacturer should know the capabilities of his equipment.

    On the other, the (experienced) user should know the limitations of the equipment.

    Common sense and good practice should encourage someone who is going to rely upon an instrument to put someone before a court to make sure that its calibration and performance are well understood and documented.

    And I'm glad to say that, because of the requirements of the ISO standard I work to, when the engineer from the manufacturer has finished the annual service on our instruments we then run our tests to show that the performance is what we expect and require.

  18. cortland

    1/2(MV^2) etc.

    I was once a juror in an auto accident case where expert witnesses retained by the two parties each reported different results from the same data. Why, was not explained to the jury, but, having learned that E=1/2(MV^2) in school, it was apparent they were using different coefficients of friction for the road surface. This was not explained to the jury, probably because the lawyers didn't know enough to ask why two experts might come up with different answers from the same data. That sets a VERY low bar for what it takes to need an expert witness to affrim.

    Almost everyone knows gravity causes a dropped ball to fall -- but a lot of adults are at a loss to say what makes it BOUNCE. Should that take an expert? Somewhere, it probably has.

    FWIW department; I have my own spectrum analyzers, thank you, and I do know what makes a ball bounce. .

  19. buyone

    Aliasing caused helicopters to shake apart - WTF

    I am puzzled by this as a cause.

    For aliasing to occur the sampling frequency is lower than the upper frequency of the signal.

    So what is doing the sampling in the case of the helicopter shaken apart by by aliasing?

    Perhaps what is being referred to is the low f components of the flappy blade system and their harmonics which excite structural resonances. These will be seen in the fft spectrum. This has nothing to do with aliasing.

    Nice videos.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Aliasing caused helicopters to shake apart - WTF

      "harmonics which excite structural resonances ... nothing to do with aliasing."

      Indeed. Looking up "higher harmonic control" might be enlightening.

      Might be boring too (didn't see many videos).

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