When you write a report, try to disprove your own opinions. Philosopher of Science, Karl Popper wrote that “whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practice this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form – a form in which it can be critically discussed.” Adopting this type of approach will make you a better accident reconstructionists and a better witness.
In a previous article, I argued that physical realism (physics-based motion, realistic textures and secondary details, perhaps even sound) makes a forensic animation more credible than an animation that lacks realism.
When we are analyzing a crash, how should we as accident reconstructionists approach what eyewitnesses and involved drivers say about what happened? For some reason, I feel obligated to say the obvious - yes, witnesses are poor estimators of speed and distance. We all know that. But today, I want to encourage you not to use that as an excuse to dismiss everything that a witness says.
There’s this fantasy that I sometimes indulge in. I write up a report of my findings from an accident reconstruction and I send it off for disclosure. The accident reconstructionist opposing me receives my report, reads it, and is simply overwhelmed by the unassailable logic and irrefutable accuracy of my opinions. In fact, so impressed is this other expert that he simply cries uncle, adopts my viewpoint, and doesn’t even bother issuing a report of his own.
Jurors want to hear about your credentials. At least that's what Andrew Jurs discovered when he administered an online survey to jurors, experts, and lawyers from every civil case that went to trial in 2012 in Polk County, Iowa. This data set consisted of 42 civil jury trials, 36 of which had at least one expert witness endorsement. Jurs asked the participants about the factors that influenced the credibility of the expert witnesses.
Underwood and Fortune observed that “one of the most common abuses of cross-examination takes the form of a question implying a serious charge against the witness, for which counsel has little or no proof. All too often, trial attorneys ask such questions for the sole purpose of wafting unwarranted innuendo to the jury box.” Kassin, Williams, and Saunders of Williams College published a fascinating mock jury study examining the effect of this tactic.
So, you just put the cherry on top of your accident reconstruction. You skillfully interpreted the evidence and relied on principles of physics to put numbers to that evidence. That’s great. But, if you stop there, you may have left your work half-done. If your reconstruction is right, and if it will provide a jury with information they actually need, then it matters that you communicate what you have done in a clear way and it matters that the jury trusts you. But, here’s the paradox from a jury’s perspective: