Expert evidence on trial

Social researchers in the international criminal courtroom

by Richard Ashby Wilson

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Social researchers often feature as expert witnesses in international criminal trials, and they can exert a strong influence on a court's understandings of mass atrocities. Analysis of over 400 expert appearances shows that, overall, international judges prefer experts who use scientific methods, but when social researchers are called, courts favor qualitative researchers over quantitative ones. In two international speech-crimes trials, a language expert was preferred to a quantitative sociologist because the former did not challenge the sovereignty of judges or the status hierarchy of the courtroom. When excluding quantitative experts, judges cite “common sense” as the basis of facticity and knowledge. The prevailing epistemological framework at international criminal tribunals results from the knowledge strategies of legal actors operating in a structurally fragile context.

Principal actors in the Šešelj trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 2007: clockwise from top left, judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, prosecution expert Anthony Oberschall, defendant Vojislav Šešelj, prosecutor Christina Dahl.
Principal actors in the Šešelj trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 2007: clockwise from top left, judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, prosecution expert Anthony Oberschall, defendant Vojislav Šešelj, prosecutor Christina Dahl. (Mirko Klarin/Sense Tribunal-Sense News Agency)