Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court

Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court

Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court

Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court


The American court system is making increasing use of sociologists as expert witnesses. From toxic torts to religious cults and brainwashing, sociological knowledge is becoming increasingly more commonplace in the legal arena. This edited volume is a collection of the experiences of sociologists who have appeared as expert witnesses in a variety of court cases. Many of the cases covered in this book revolve around central issues of murder, self-defense, religious cults, battered women, child pornography, environmentalism, and homelessness. This volume is unique in its breadth of topics and contributions.


Expert witnesses have been recorded since ancient times. Consider the trials of Jesus, Socrates, and, later, Galileo. the U.S. Supreme Court heard expert witnesses in the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case of separate but equal clauses of conditions of life from education to drinking fountains, buses, and businesses.

How can we trust expert witnesses? We cannot, not easily. We must use the principle of the best available evidence, which means that we must rely on the traditional canons of scientific inquiry.

There is no substitute for the dogged pursuit of testing hypotheses over and over again. the maverick scientist who contradicts the commitments of dozens of carefully researched findings is an unlikely voice of truth. There may be virtue in the challenge of the scientific community, but neither science nor law can count on it until history passes and possesses the accumulation of replications.

We are at a new threshold of significance in the use of expert witnesses. Congress has debated the issue of statistical evidence regarding discrimination in the use of the death penalty. Statistical evidence has been accepted in housing and employment discrimination cases but not in death penalty sentences.

I first testified in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the Maxwell case in 1966 and showed the court that there was a systemic, 20-year period of disproportionate (discriminatory) sentencing of blacks to the death penalty when the defendant was black and the victim, white. Baldus and others since have confirmed in brilliant detail what I reported much earlier.

The Supreme Court has listened to but not learned from our researches. the expert witness often is viewed as a biased liberal, despite our efforts to show our commitment to scientific inquiry and methodological objectivity.

Social science is, however, marching ahead on many issues that are arising in litigation and appellate review. Sexual harassment, domestic . . .

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