Expert illuminates perjury problem involving experts; There is virtually no accountability.

Paul Carpenter Of The Morning Call

Allentown Morning Call, Sunday, March 31, 2002

 

 

   A fee of $30,000 for a few hours of work is not bad.

 

 

  That is how much Dr. Michael Welner was paid last year to testify

for the prosecution in the case of Richard Baumhammers in

Pittsburgh.

 

 

   I mentioned that case Friday when I discussed legislation to

exempt the so-called mentally retarded from the death penalty.

Baumhammers is not retarded; his defense was based on mental

illness, but the issues are similar.

 

 

  The defense in that case attacked Welner's testimony, saying it

was influenced by his $30,000 fee. It didn't work. As I noted

Friday, Baumhammers is on death row, right where he belongs.

 

 

  Still, that kind of money for a witness, along with other

influences, is worrisome.

 

 

  I have long argued that there are two harmful dynamics in

criminal proceedings -- the money paid to expert witnesses and the

excessive zeal of some prosecution witnesses, especially police

officers.

 

 

  Welner brought up a third. Testifying March 18 before the state

Senate Judiciary Committee, he said "a personal agenda" often skews

testimony.

 

 

  That committee was holding hearings on Senate Bill 26, which

would ban the death penalty for anyone with an intelligence quotient

below 70.

 

 

  I oppose that bill, as does Welner, a professor at New York

University's School of Medicine and a prominent forensic

psychiatrist.

 

 

  After explaining why a simple IQ test would be a bad idea for

exempting a class of individuals from legal accountability, Welner

talked about expert testimony in general.

 

 

  "I need to address the state of affairs of forensics, as it

relates to the death penalty," he told the committee.

 

 

  "The passions of those who are endeavoring to abolish capital

punishment are vocal and influential," Welner testified. "I have

witnessed colleagues, so personally moved by this issue, to testify

on behalf of capital defendants with history they make up

themselves.

 

 

  "This is, basically, perjury," he said, referring to "test

results  that are spurious or are purposely altered so as to

maximize the perception that the defendant is incapacitated.

 

 

  "Forget the defendant faking," he said. "Nobody can fool a court

more effectively than a trained professional who knows more than the

court, and has a personal agenda."

 

 

  Having spent time in court listening to criminal cases, I do not

dispute one word of that, but I have focused on two other problems.

 

 

  First, expert witnesses testify the way they are paid to testify,

and it is almost always the prosecution that has all the money. Some

paid experts testify exclusively for the prosecution side, knowing

that if they ever testify for the defense, they will be blackballed.

 

 

  (That is not the case with Welner. He has testified for both the

prosecution and defense, depending on merit, such is his stature in

the forensic expert community.)

 

 

 Second, I have seen police officers and other witnesses commit

perjury to gain convictions in cases ranging from traffic tickets to

murder.

 

 

  That happens because there is virtually no accountability for

such an offense. No prosecutor, police officer or other prosecution

witness is likely to face charges, no matter how flagrantly he or

she commits or suborns perjury.

 

 

  Now that Welner has articulated the problem of perjury by expert

witnesses, perhaps somebody will move to do something about it,

whether it involves a personal agenda, prosecutorial zeal or money.

 

 

  Laws along those lines would do far more than SB 26 to improve

the legal system.

 

 

  paul.carpenter@mcall.com

 

 

  610-820-6176