A forensic scientist’s tales from the courtroom

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I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to give evidence in court.  How nervous do you get?  Do you get tied up in knots by smart lawyers every time?


The truth is it is often very dull and repetitive.  There is a pattern to court appearances in my experience.  You are required to attend at a certain time, usually first thing in the morning, with no real guarantee as to what time you will be called to give evidence.  We used to call it the ‘hurry up and wait’ call from the Police.  “Be here as quick as possible and then wait until you are needed”.


the court case

One time I was called to give evidence in Auckland at the High Court. I had to be in Auckland before the start of court at 10 am.  This meant catching an aeroplane at 7 am from Wellington.  I was met at the airport by Police and transported to court.  As it happened the Policeman was from the UK and we had a good chat about places we knew in common.  I got to the courtroom in time, settled in to re read my case file and drink nasty instant coffee for the day (it was free coffee prepared by the Police, so I’m not complaining too much).


The case was a murder.  Two men were in court accused of killing an acquaintance.  I had completed forensic toxicology analyses on the samples taken from the deceased at post mortem.  There was some methamphetamine detected.  Methamphetamine can make the user very aggressive, which I thought would probably be the defence line of questioning.  I met with the Crown lawyers and they said they would lead me through my statement  and then hand over to the defence.


So far, so straight forward.


don’t mention the mob…

In the briefing before hand it was stressed to me that even though it was gang related, I was not allowed to mention this in court.  Any mention of gangs could prejudice the jury and prevent a fair trial.  This was stressed by both the Police and the Crown lawyers.  Normally this wouldn’t be important to my evidence, but they were obviously very keen for me to remember.  New Zealand does have quite a strong gang culture.


As I walked in front of the dock one of the accused said ‘alright Mate’ or some such (more likely ‘hey bro’) so I turned to look.  I almost burst out laughing.  Tattooed across his face in letters 6 inches high was ‘MMM’.  This could be thought a bit cryptic  but his friend in the box was not so.  He had ‘Mighty Mongrel Mob’ tattooed on his face.


The defence lawyer asked me a few questions, as I thought, but I don’t really remember in too much detail.  I do recall the feeling as I stood there that the Police had perhaps been winding me up. I bet they were sitting at the back of the court chuckling away.  I am fairly sure the jury were able to make the leap between this two men having gang tattoos and the murder being gang related!


The men were convicted and are now serving lengthy prison sentences.


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.