Expert testimony

On 18 April 2006 the Law section of The Times had a feature about the issues surrounding the increasing use of expert witnesses. The author, Phil Willis M.P., points out that “A number of highly publicised trials, such as that of Siôn Jenkins and Angela Cannings have hinged upon strongly contested evidence from expert witnesses that has subsequently been discredited.” As he points out “We should not underestimate the the cost of the failings …ten million pounds in costs for the Jenkins trials; the human costs are huge and immeasurable; not to mention the substantial cost in terms of the damage to public confidence in the legal system.”

Adrian Wain

The attack on Billie-Jo was described as ‘frenzied’, the most brutal ever witnessed by an experienced police surgeon. It was stressed that the perpetrator would be heavily bloodstained. In the event, drops of blood, smaller than a pin-head and invisible to the naked eye, were detected on Siôn Jenkins’ clothing and were said to be the ‘incontrovertible’ evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty of murder.

After the verdict, Adrian Wain, the prosecution’s forensic expert, proclaimed on television that his was ‘central evidence in the case’, without which there would have been no conviction.In the absence of any motive for the crime, the verdict hinged on his findings.

Channel 4’s Trial and Error showed the prosecution video of Wain’s experiment. It seems bizarre and unconvincing. However, this was,apparently, what convinced the jury of Siôn Jenkins’ guilt.
Wain used a pig’s skull to simulate a human head, in order to illustrate how the drops of blood had spattered on to Siôn Jenkins’ clothing.

His comparison had a number of fundamental flaws. For example:

  • a pig’s skull is thick, totally different in structure to the fragile human skull
  • the respiratory structures of pigs and humans are not the same
  • there was no circulation of blood in the pig’s head used by Wain

In May 2005 at the retrial Wain remained adamant that his work found no proof that the blood on Siôn Jenkins’ clothing could have arrived there through being breathed out by Billie-Jo. He also insisted that in spite of the ferocity of the attack it was not necessarily the case that the murderer would have been covered in blood. This is in spite of specific comments by Jeremy Paine and others at the time that the murderer’s clothes were likely to have been heavily bloodstained.

Adrian Wain also announced that specks of ‘flesh’ had recently been identified in the blood spots. This fact, he said, was not discernible at the time of the first trial because the blood had not dried out when he had conducted the original tests a week after the murder.

Given the size of the blood spots — which were invisible to the naked eye — this assertion by Wain sounds about as credible as his study of the pig’s skull.

Professor David Southall

In June 1998 Professor David Southall was a prosecution witness at the trial of Siôn Jenkins.

The assertion by Siôn Jenkins’ first defence team that the crucial ‘mist’ of blood came from Billie-Jo breathing was fiercely rejected. The prosecution insisted that only forceful breathing could have produced such an effect. Siôn Jenkins, they asserted, had never said he had been aware that Billie-Jo was breathing. In any case, her terrible injuries made such a thing seem impossible.

Contradicting defence evidence about whether Billie-Jo was still alive when she was dicovered, he said:

“It is very unlikely but I can’t say it couldn‘t possibly happen. I am talking way out on the extremes of what could happen in extreme situations.”

There was no attempt to define or quantify the term ‘extreme’. This statement is not only vague; it is misleading.

He then went on to assert “Anybody approaching a child with an injury who is gasping would be in no doubt whatsoever that the child was breathing and still alive and would report that because it would be so obvious to an observer.”

This statement is simply not true. There are well — documented examples of medical experts mistakenly confirming death. It is patently not obvious , especially in an extreme situation, whether someone is alive.

Professor Southall, though, underlined his assertion by adding “It would be obvious because the observer would want the child not to be dead…”

It is remarkable that this completely illogical statement was viewed as credible expert testimony at the time of the trial.

It is alarming that opinion, rather than fact, can determine the course of justice.

In June 2004 Professor David Southall appeared before the conduct committee of the General Medical Council. The hearing began on 7 June 2004. Two months later he was found guilty of serious professional misconduct.

First appeal: prosecution experts challenged.

The prosecution’s scientific evidence has since been discredited by the results of the experiments carried out, prior to the first appeal, for Channel 4’s Trial and Error by Professor David Dennison, an expert in the heart and lungs, and an eminent scientist.His rigorous testing, clearly captured on film, is a glaring contrast to Wain’s crude exercise as demonstrated in the prosecution video. Professor Dennison’s experiments were minutely documented with the aid of slow motion photography which can bear the closest scrutiny. His findings were consistent and clearly verified.

His conclusions were reinforced by the testimony of James Palmer, a neurosurgeon, who explained that even when it has suffered massive injury, there is a tiny part of the human brain which can continue to sustain breathing, however faint and irregular. Billie Jo’s injuries were consistent with this having happened.

Professor Dennison’s fastidious research offered conclusive proof that a tiny, inaudible breath can cause two or three drops of blood to produce two thousand droplets. The high speed cameras revealed a consistent pattern, matching the drops found on Jenkins’ clothing. In fact, the victim would not even have needed to be alive for this to happen. By raising Billie-Jo’s shoulder as he did, Siôn Jenkins could have caused a minute amount of air to be released from her airways, producing the crucial mist of blood.

The evidence had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Siôn Jenkins had killed Billie-Jo.

In the light of Professor Dennison’s work, can there still be a serious claim that the pig’s skull had proved anything at all?