Tales from an expert witness: Lasers, guns and singing Santas

Knowing your stuff can land you in court

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Reverse engineering

The owner of a new Mini was having trouble getting it into reverse. It was still under warranty. She was told by the dealer that she had to wait before engaging reverse and then it would be fine. It is of course correct that synchromesh gears take time to synchronise and a small pause helps that.

The problem is the only vehicle I know of that has synchromesh on reverse is a Lamborghini. That precise phrase was incorporated in the report that resulted in a new gearbox being fitted under warranty.

Mini and Lamborghini

Mini and Lamborghini: apparently there is a difference, although not everyone in the motor trade realises this

I could write a book about these stories, and it wouldn’t be fiction.

It seems to me that the motor trade relies on the self-propelled nature of the product to ensure that the problems they cause always occur elsewhere. My advice for dealing with the motor trade is to put everything in writing and do not hesitate to take legal action.

Witness statement

It goes with the territory that total impartiality and objectiveness is expected from the Expert. It's a position that must cut across any expectation to adhere to corporate positions. Given that prerequisite, the authority of the Expert Witness suggests that we either come from academe or independent consultancies, which is, indeed, often the case.
Old football

Needless to say, we're a curious lot and I suppose the curiosity in me first became evident when, at a very young age, I was given a football. I was so fascinated by the way in which an approximate sphere could be made by tessellating flat pieces of leather that I don’t believe I ever kicked it.

Not long afterwards I found myself on the school football pitch for the first time. Knowing nothing about football and having received zero tuition in how to play it or even why I should, I was predictably informed that I was no good. My next school was considerably further upmarket, underlined by the playing of rugby, about which I showed the same enthusiasm, received the same amount of tuition and achieved the same results.

Delivery came from an unexpected quarter. I contracted an illness which progressed with such severity that kicking anything was out of the question unless illegal quantities of morphine were available. When it came around to the oxymoronically entitled "physical education" period, one day I simply disappeared with a pile of library books. Nothing was said.

These events led me to the conclusion that, at least in my case, educational techniques and sport were mutually exclusive and that the essentialness of sport to a rounded education was a myth of the same magnitude as any of those in The History of Herodotus.

New style football

Had I not had the perfect excuse to escape I would not have read as extensively, nor had time to recognise good writing from bad and perhaps would not have set out to write myself. Had I dedicated myself to sport I might have ended up with the vocabulary of a five-year-old and married to a pop star.

The conversation

After obtaining the necessary approvals, the police may carry out surveillance on suspected criminal activity which might involve planting covert sound recording devices. In the case I am about to describe, a transcript of conversations picked up by some of these devices was used in a prosecution.

I had the task of carrying out an independent transcript to ensure that there was no bias. Some of the recordings were made in moving vehicles, with the radio on, and a good deal of filtering and enhancement was needed to extract the conversations, yet what I found was substantially what the police found.

Listening for a living

Listening for a living: Angela Merkel grew up with it in East Germany, but she's not impressed with the idea
Source: The Lives of Others, Wiedemann & Berg Film

The police rightly planted those devices, and in doing so found that a robbery with violence was being planned and they were able to save the proposed victims from injury and loss. I sleep better in the knowledge that the police are able to do things like that.

My direct experience of the police is that they are a whole lot better than the image the media paints. Two things: doing something well is not newsworthy and perfection is not achievable in any field. The image of Expert Witnesses was damaged by the Meadow affair, in which Sir Samuel Meadow was struck off the register by the General Medical Council in connection with what the council characterised as "misleading" evidence he had given at the 1999 trial of a woman accused of the murder of her babies.

My approach to expert testimony was that I would only give the same opinions that other equally qualified people would give in the same circumstances.

In contrast, cases come up that are less tragic. I recall the case of the singing Father Christmases. These novelties (Noëlties?) were motorised so that they could wave their arm holding a candle in time to the singing coming from a small chip driving a loudspeaker.

I think it was supposed to be Silent Night, but unfortunately they had got the song wrong and the sound was distorted. I don’t suppose Silent Night is well-known or understood in China. More unfortunately, there was an entire warehouse full of these things, all with the same problem.

More than one visitor remarked on the incongruity of having Father Christmases around the house in the middle of summer, let alone connected to a spectrum analyser. It’s a job, guv’nor.

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