How crucial are expert testimonies in a trial?

I began pondering this last week while covering the trial of a 61-year-old man accused of strangling his girlfriend at a Rapid City motel in 2015. It was the fourth murder trial I’ve covered, and the other ones all ended in convictions.

Two of the three previous defendants also presented experts to bolster their cases.

James Dowty, 27, was charged with shooting a 13-year-old girl on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation one early morning last year. Te’Ca Lynn Clifford was then walking along the road with three teenage friends, and her companions told a federal jury that they recognized Dowty as the shooter.

An optometrist who testified for Dowty’s defense said being able to correctly identify the assailant would have been “humanly impossible” because of the area’s dim lighting and the witnesses’ distance of at least 50 yards from the shooter. They could have only clearly seen the shooter with a telescope or binoculars, the optometrist said.

The jury returned a guilty verdict. Dowty is now preparing a request for a judgment of acquittal and a new trial.

Marlon Iron Crow, 44, was charged with beating to death a 35-year-old man while they were drinking last year. Iron Crow admitted fighting with Craig Charging Crow – just like two witnesses told police – but he said it was done in self-defense.

The doctor who conducted Charging Crow’s autopsy said he died from a brain injury, which could have stemmed from an assault or accidental fall. His blood alcohol content during the autopsy was almost five times the legal limit for drivers.

A trauma nurse who saw Charging Crow at a hospital told a federal jury that a fall, or drowning in his own vomit, was the more likely explanation for his death given his level of intoxication.

The nurse said also that he didn’t see any injuries to prove the witnesses’ claim that Iron Crow stomped on Charging Crow’s head with cowboy boots.

Iron Crow was found guilty. He is also preparing a request for a judgment of acquittal and a new trial.

Last week’s trial of Brian Duncan ended differently.

A forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy of his girlfriend ruled that Helen Wright, 60, died from strangulation. But another forensic pathologist, who reviewed the case for the defense, said she died from pneumonia and that her neck hemorrhaging was a result of decomposition.

The defense also put on the stand a psychologist, who said that Duncan left Rapid City without informing authorities of Wright’s death because of a psychological disorder related to his experiences as an African-American. It apparently made him paranoid of police and of being falsely accused.

He was found not guilty in state court, and released from jail the same day.

What evidence helped the jury reach its verdict? How much weight did jurors give the expert testimonies? I still don’t know the answers.

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