"Issue on Science & the Legal System"

Michigan Law Authors
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Journal Article

Experts bedeviled the legal systemlong before seventeenth-century Salem, when the town’s good citizens relied on youthful accusers and witchcraft experts to identify the devil’s servants in their midst. As
in Salem, claims of expertise have often been questioned and objections raised about the bases of expert
knowledge. Expertise, then and now, did not have to
be based on science; but the importance of science
and the testimony of scientific experts has since medieval times been woven into the fabric of the English
jurisprudence that Americans inherited. In cases as
long ago as 1299 we find examples of courts seeking
help from “scientists.” In that year, physicians and
surgeons in London were called on to advise the court
on the medical value of the flesh of wolves.1
In 1619,
two physicians offered the opinion that a wife could
bear a legitimate child “forty weeks and nine days” after the death of her husband.2 Throughout this period, medical authority was called on by the coroners’
courts to determine whether a death was due to suicide or to other causes, a crucial determination because suicide was a felony that entitled the Crown to
take possession of a deceased’s estate.3
Medical testimony is still the most common form of scientific expertise presented in court, but expert advice on legal matters has expanded exponentially, reflecting the enormous range of scientific knowledge that modern scholarship has produced.

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