A man with the words “Pimpin’ Ken” tattooed on his forehead was on the witness stand as Laurie Cook Heffron entered the Bexar County courtroom last October. The man was the defendant in the human trafficking case for which Cook Heffron was about to testify as an expert witness. He was accused of pimping out a group of women in San Antonio.
“As I entered the court room, I heard his defense attorney say that the man’s biggest problem was that he was a lover of women, that he didn’t do anything wrong except love women. And I thought, this is going to be really interesting,” Cook Heffron recalls.
The defendant was ultimately charged with continuous human trafficking, a first-degree felony that subjects those charged to additional sentencing.
With her testimony for this case, Cook Heffron, then a doctoral student at the School of Social Work, joined a sizable group of faculty and researchers who regularly serve as expert witnesses in civil, criminal, immigration and other types of courts.
Since 2004, in fact, the School’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA), led by Noël Busch-Armendariz, has been offering trainings in how to give expert testimony in domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking cases to attorneys and potential expert witnesses such as social workers, counselors, and advocates. Busch-Armendariz has served as an expert in over 50 cases, and teaches the training alongside other expert witnesses and attorneys. In 2016, IDVSA will also offer an expert witness training for immigration cases.
We talked with three IDVSA researchers — Cook Heffron, Caitlin Sulley, and Margaret Bassett — to gather their insights about how social workers can serve as expert witnesses and why they should do it.
Ways of testifying
Social workers can testify as general or case experts. In the Bexar County case, for instance, Cook Heffron testified as a general expert in human trafficking and interpersonal violence. Her role was to educate the judge and the jury about human trafficking, about patterns of violence and abuse, and to dismantle common misconceptions about how victims and survivors of violence may respond.
“The prosecutor wanted me to help the jury and the judge understand why this group of women didn’t leave the man who was exploiting them. The women were adults, U.S. citizens, he didn’t have them shackled… why didn’t they leave? So I shared what the research says about strategies that traffickers use to coerce their victims, how victims of violence can bond with the abuser, and what might be common behaviors. For example, in this case, the trafficker also sold drugs, and that’s how he recruited women. He capitalized on the woman’s drug addiction, and had coercive ways of giving and withholding drugs. He also used sexual violence to control them,” Cook Heffron explains.
In another instance, Cook Heffron testified as a case expert. This was in immigration court, on behalf of a Guatemalan woman who had fled severe domestic violence at home and was facing deportation. For this case, Cook Heffron was able to combine her clinical skills with her research expertise.
“I interviewed the woman, I conducted a lethality assessment that showed her risk of being killed if she was sent back home was sky high, and I submitted a written testimony. I was testifying as a social worker with clinical skills but also as a researcher who could put this particular case in a larger context, and talk about how what this woman experienced fit within what we know about domestic violence. So I was not just another person saying that the victim was believable, but I added this larger context based on what the science says,” Cook Heffron says.
How to prepare for the witness stand
As a general rule, before the oral testimony, the judge and the attorneys ask questions to ensure that the witness has the needed expertise to testify. Sulley shared her experience of being qualified as an expert witness in martial court for a case of military sexual assault:
“They asked me about my master’s degree, and about specific courses that were related to the case, so I talked about learning about trauma, neurobiology, and so on. They also wanted to know about my research background, how many victims I had worked with, and my experience interviewing sexual assault victims,” Sulley says.
“Working with good attorneys helps a lot, because even when the defense tried to discredit me, the prosecution came back to clarify. You have to trust the attorneys you work with,” Sulley adds.
Being on the witness stand can be nerve wracking, particularly during cross-examination. Bassett recalled being cross-examined during a domestic violence case:
“The defense attorney was really aggressive, the judge was not allowing much testimony, and they were arguing whether the science and research about domestic violence was a hard science or a soft science. And the defense attorney was really attacking me, trying to make it seem that I offered nothing of value,” Bassett recalls.
Bassett now leads the IDVSA Expert Witness Program.
“In our trainings, participants not only learn up-to-date content but also practice testifying with an attorney and get feedback from faculty. Testifying is like public speaking, with the added difficulty that you are trying to educate the judge and the jury, that you tell your story by responding to questions, and that you are exposed to somebody that will try to undermine what you say. You have to build up the skill and ability to manage that in a professional way, and to showcase your expertise effectively,” Bassett says.
Testifying as an expert witness is a unique way to advocate for the causes you are passionate about and to give voice to others.
“I have been in the field of domestic violence for about 30 years. I feel that I have an obligation towards people who have allowed me to hold their stories and work with them in their journeys,” Bassett says. “People who are abused in relationships often don’t have a voice. When they share their stories with me, they give this powerful voice that is a compilation of all those stories.”
For researchers, testifying as an expert witness also helps to keep research endeavors grounded in the world beyond academia.
“My doctoral research is on immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Sometimes doing research can seem very distant from the causes that we care about,” Cook Heffron reflects. “Serving as an expert witness helps me feel that I am contributing something to this cause, and to understand better how my research is relevant.”
And finally, testifying as an expert witness is rewarding—as much as it is challenging.
“It’s challenging because you take the essence of your work and articulate it in a high stress environment. You have to be very present, and the stakes are very high,” Sulley says. “But with good training and good support, you can rise to the occasion, you are firing on all cylinders, your adrenaline is going, and it’s what you are passionate about. It’s really rewarding to use your expertise to give a voice to survivors who otherwise may not be heard.”
By Andrea Campetella