Science too hard for juries

Judges seem to be struggling too

A group of British MPs has called for juries to be dropped from trials involving complicated scientific evidence. The Commons select committee on science and technology argues that jury members are often unable to evaluate this kind of testimony, and can be swayed by the charisma of the witness.

It says that the effect of a witness' personality on the credibility of his evidence is widely acknowledged as a problem by the police, witnesses, prosecutors and judges, The Guardian reports. It blames a complacency within the Crown Prosecution Service, which it criticised for failing to tackle the issue.

It also called for a system to be established that could validate scientific testimony before it is presented in court. It recommends establishing a Forensic Science Advisory Council to do just this.

In their recommendation, the MPs note: "If key players in the criminal justice system, including the police and experienced expert witnesses, do not have faith in a jury's ability to distinguish between the strength of evidence and the personality of the expert witness presenting it, it is hard to see why anyone else should."

But the jury is not the only group that fails to understand the evidence presented by expert witness, the committee found. It cited the case of Manchester solicitor Sally Clark, who in 1999 was convicted of murdering two of her babies. In 2003, the conviction was quashed, upon her second appeal.

In her case, paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow testified that the odds of two cot deaths occurring in a family like Clark's was 73m to one, despite the fact that he was not a statistical expert. During the first appeal, the court refused to hear testimony from a statistician because it was "hardly rocket science".

The committee also argued that the ban on research into jury deliberations should be lifted so that experts can investigate how juries deal with scientific evidence.

This is not the first time the possibility of trials-without-jury has been raised: the collapse last week of a £60m corruption case has led to calls for judges to hear complex fraud cases without a jury. ®

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