A graduate level Expert Evidence and the Courts (FRSC 5030) course at Trent is preparing students to take the stand and defend evidence. As future experts in crime scene analysis, students must be prepared to translate evidence into facts and present in high-pressure environments such as the courtroom.
Taking the stand
When taking the stand, what expert witnesses say can hold significant weight over the outcome of legal proceedings. In this course, students build their understanding of their role as experts in the Canadian justice system by studying mock examples, presenting their findings, and then facing cross examination in a mock court setting by subpoena of course instructor, Professor Rhonda Smith.
“That pits a high duty on them to act with clarity and integrity,” explains Prof. Smith. “I want our students to understand the roles of the other players in the justice system so they will know how to bridge the gap between science and law, how to provide their expert evidence in a way that is understood by the non-scientist decision-makers, and to develop skills and strategies for handling situations in court that may challenge their honesty, biases, and professionalism.”
During the hearings, students play the role of expert witness and provide reports that Prof. Smith and peers will use to cross-examine the facts of a student’s report. Students like Avery Firlotte, a Catharine Parr Traill College student in the Master of Science in Forensic Science program at Trent, were taught to approach each report in search of flaws – ready to pick apart the slightest error.
“This aspect of the assignment was certainly helpful in training us to view our own scientific reports under a new lens, in terms of being able to identify our own future errors when putting together a report.”
Whether the students were challenging their peer’s scientific methods or their chain of custody, Avery explains that the process made her aware of all the area expert witnesses need to be aware of when preparing to take the stand.
Converting the classroom into a courtroom
To put their knowledge to the test, students in FRSC 5030 spend little time in a classic classroom dynamic. After the first few weeks, the professor and student roles are dropped in favour of Prof. Smith taking on the role of Crown Attorney and the students picking up the role of expert witness.
“We hold a full two days of open court where anyone, including members of the public, can attend and observe, and we have individuals the students are not familiar with come and play the role of Judge,” says Prof. Smith. “All of this is done to make their experience as real as possible.”
Not unlike many of the other students in the program, Avery hopes to work in forensic identification – and courses like FRSC 5030 are helping her get there. The course gives students a glimpse into the real-world legal implications of the scientific information they are learning to provide and how it can impact legal proceedings.
“The course load has provided me with competency in a variety of fields such as blood pattern analysis, ballistics, toxicology, and crime scene processing,” explains Avery. “This program has also provided me with the skills necessary for networking within the field and has given me the confidence that I will be able to achieve a career in this field after graduation.”
“The students come into this course with a variety of experience in science but also in law - some having already some familiarity with law and others without any - so it is always fun to see how everyone progresses over the course of the semester,” says Prof. Smith. “I like the small number of students in the graduate program. With 22 students, I am able to do a lot more intensive experiential teaching.”