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Columns : In My Sights

My Life as an Expert

If you ever want to know about the weirdest cases out there, just serve as an expert witness in court.

June 01, 2009  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

One of the most stressful things I have ever done in my life is be an expert witness. Despite training hundreds of cadets at the academy, studying various law enforcement skills, developing hundreds of diverse training programs, as well as simply doing and supervising law enforcement in the true laboratory of the street, nothing prepared me for the surreal world of the expert witness.

My first case as an expert was defending a group of officers who had shot a naked fellow on a narcotics raid. He had sued and won and now the officers were appealing. Nakedness is an odd attribute for a suspect, but after working narcotics for years I found it is not that rare. In reading all the depositions I noted the officers and the experts seemed to live in two separate worlds.

To the experts, this naked fellow was shot rather excessively at close range by the officers even after he had raised his legs in surrender…that's right, his legs. On the other hand, the officers doing the shooting seemed to be rather unmindful of the fellow's nakedness or foot position; it was the presence of the rifle that he was swinging toward them that they found rather offensive.

I have found this paradox often in the cases I have worked. What seems pretty common sense to me and the officer I am defending is somehow wildly off-base to the plaintiff and his or her "expert." I once defended a constable whom a suspect tried to run over three times before the constable finally opened fire on the fellow only to find himself in court with an expert saying he should have "just run away!" Just run away, eh? We won the case, but I must say, between depositions and cross-examinations being an expert witness is one bizarre experience.

To further prove my point I must go back to my very first awareness of "expertness" that occurred decades ago when JW cited a miscreant who had a rooster in her yard in Tucson. We had a strict ordinance against a "male fowl" being kept since roosters have an instinctual reflex to disturb the peace upon sunrise. You and I might laugh this off as just a simple fine and great dinner opportunity for the violator, but not so this outraged lover of Gallus domesticus, and JW soon found himself in Superior Court defending his citation.

It seems the Colonel's favorite dish has a tendency to be hermaphroditic every few thousand or so, and therein lay the appeal to the court. The rooster was actually a "hooster" or maybe a "ren," or so the appellant claimed. Picture the spellbinding moment in court when the judge sat stunned at this revelation, this "expert" claim of fact that rendered the citation void and the asexual fowl legal!

Without hesitation our young crime fighter took the stand and declared that while true one might find a hermaphroditic chicken, he had checked the violating bird and found him wholly male…period. Thus began a long query by the judge regarding JW's vitae as a "chicken expert." Incredibly, his life as a Wyoming rancher included a great deal of chicken ranching and state fair judging that had led him into the world of chicken-checking!

And so JW became the official chicken checker of Tucson PD…a cross he bears to this day. I still laugh at the comments our dispatchers and officers came up with every time a "crowing rooster" call would go out when our squad was working the streets!

I know this all sounds rather strange, but to tell the truth, in my experience as an expert witness the tale of the chicken-checking expert is one of the less bizarre. As you laugh to yourself and get ready to go on your shift, know that for every thing you do there is an expert somewhere who is willing to say you are wrong. On the other hand, there is also an expert willing to say, "Good job."


Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' "Street Survival" seminar.

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