A Quick And Dirty Daubert Explanation

Daubert Challenges of Experts
Daubert Challenges of Experts

Daubert is the name of an United States Supreme Court case regarding the admissibility of scientific evidence: Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  While the case was decided in 1993, it’s holdings are new to Arizona.  Despite some arguments to the contrary by a few luddites, Arizona adopted it on January 1, 2012.  Arizona’s change to a Daubert standard for challenging scientific evidence may be the most significant event our court have ever encountered.  Currently, there are 31 other states that have adopted the Daubert standard.

At its core, the Daubert standard is the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence for expert testimony.  When Arizona amended its companion Rule to essentially conform with the Federal version, Daubert became the guiding case for Arizona courts to rely upon for decisions on the admissibility of scientific evidence.  As with all legal rulings, there are hundreds of subsequent court interpretations of Daubert, by hundreds of other courts, each providing their own view of what Daubert means in a given set of facts.

What Does Daubert Do?

The Daubert decision created criteria for trial judges to use when determining the admissibility of an expert witnesses’ testimony.  The standard requires a judge to “vet” an expert’s scientific testimony before it is presented to a jury.  A so called expert’s opinion must be the product of a scientific methodology to be admissible.

  • For a more in depth Daubert discussion you can click here.

What Did Daubert Change In  Arizona?

Prior to January 1, 2012 many Arizona courts would allow an expert to tell a jury an opinion as long as they also said the magic words – my opinion is “generally accepted” in the scientific community.  Without a judge screening the way the expert came to her conclusion (i.e. whether the conclusion actually the product of reliable science) juries have been unknowingly and repeatedly subjected to junk science.  The only effective safeguards were hopefully, the defense attorney was skilled enough to reveal the opinions were lacking scientific validity; And the accused had the funds to hire their own expert.  Both of the circumstances are unlikely for most cases.

In light of the above, is it really so surprising that just about every month you see another news story about a person who was wrongfully convicted at trial based on a so called expert testimony, and now they have been exonerated by advancements in DNA testing?
Why Do We Care?
Daubert challenges are the primary defense against:

  • The Crime Laboratory person that thinks everyone is guilty so why bother to take the time to do the test correctly;
  • The “hired gun” expert;
  • The person who truly believes they are an expert but are incompetent;

Police crime laboratories have been the primary culprits of presenting junk science to juries.  Skeptical of this statement?  Think this opinion may not be the product of a reliable methodology?  Well, then read the 2009 Report on Forensic Science delivered to the United States Congress by the National Academy of Science.  The Report chronicles the epidemic of police crime labs presenting misleading testimony and scientifically unreliable conclusions.

We care that Daubert has come to Arizona because the standards set forth by the Supreme Court for vetting scientific evidence are meant to prevent exactly what many crime labs have been doing for years – providing juries with opinions and test results that are not the product of real science.

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