When “Experts” Aren’t Actually Experts

A recent article in The Austin Chronicle addresses the issues of “junk science,” experts, and juries’ willingness to believe “expert-like” non-experts in trials.

On March 29, 2000, 19-month-old Nicholas Macias died of “massive internal injuries – including a severed pancreas and a colon torn from its blood supply.”  Nicholas and his 4-year-old brother Dylan were being babysat by 27-year-old Rigoberto Avila, “a former Navy man with no criminal record.”  According to the State of Texas, Avila murdered Nicholas, stomping on his belly and causing the massive injuries.  According to Avila, however, Avila was watching a basketball game on TV, while the two boys played in their bedroom.  A little later, Dylan walked in from their bedroom and told Avila that Nicholas wasn’t breathing.  Avila claims, and statements from Dylan tend to support, that Nicholas had actually been injured by Dylan, who jumped onto Nicholas’ stomach while imitating professional wrestlers he watched on TV.

The science aspect of this story begins at the trial.  The county medical examiner testified that the injuries “were not consistent” with what could have been inflicted by a 40-pound 4-year-old.  The pediatric surgeon who treated Nicholas at the hospital testified that his injuries were similar to a patient who “jumped out of a vehicle going 60 miles per hour.”

The problem, according to the article, is that the two doctors are not experts, at least not in the field of injury mechanics or forensic pathology.  While doctors typically are trained to diagnose and treat injuries, most do not have extensive knowledge of physics and mechanics required needed to diagnose injury mechanisms.  According to biomechanical engineer Chris Van Ee, a child Dylan’s size, jumping from just 18-inches, about the height of the bed in Nicholas’ and Dylan’s room, could exert up to 500 pounds of force to a small child’s abdomen.

Unfortunately for Avila, the fact that two doctors testified against his version of events seemed to have great weight on the jury.  Even though they weren’t experts in biomechanics, a jury would tend to believe them, likely not distinguishing the fact that a doctor, trained in the scientific arts, might not be trained in all the scientific arts.

This past spring, Texas passed SB 344, which “expands the law to allow inmates convicted using outdated or junk science the ability to appeal those convictions.”  Avila’s attorney feels that Avila’s case is exactly what the authors of SB 344 had in mind.  Naturally, the State of Texas disagrees.

Whether or not Avila’s appeals are successful, his case presents tragic, but most likely too common, situation.  The unseen death of an infant usually elicits suspicions of foul play, even if something else might be the cause.  Medical evidence, which sometimes can be almost as much art as science, often presents conflicting views.  It’s too early to tell how many cases SB 344 will affect, but hopefully it will allow those convicted on the basis of “junk” science a chance to make their cases that not all science was created equal.

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