The Crooked Expert Witness

Expert witnesses. We want to believe them. Our judicial system places enormous reliance on their word. But what if they're wrong? Worse, still, what if they're lying? What are we to make of someone prepared to bend the truth for a pocketful of cash, knowing that their testimony will doom an innocent person to years behind bars and possibly worse?

In recent years a spate of so-called expert witnesses have been caught out lying in the courtroom. In 1992 Texas medical examiner Ralph Erdmann pleaded no contest to seven counts of falsifying autopsy reports. One year later the West Virginia Supreme Court discredited the entire body of work of Fred Zain, a serologist for the state's crime lab, after doubts had arisen over Zain's qualifications. More recently, in May 2007, an Oklahoma death row inmate, Curtis McCarty, was freed after a court found that state forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist had "acted in bad faith" by tampering with the very piece of evidence that had secured a conviction. Just a couple of months earlier, Joseph Kopera, a ballistics expert for the Maryland State Police, blew his brains out after being confronted with proof that he had lied about his credentials.

Albert H. Hamilton - the most dangerous man in America
Albert H. Hamilton - the most dangerous man in America

That Man From Auburn

It's a sorry tale. And it's been around for longer than most people think. In fact, to find the person who started all this courtroom mayhem we have to travel back to the early days of the 20th century, and to a drugstore in Auburn, New York. This was the workplace of a bespectacled, balding pharmacist named Albert H. Hamilton. Hamilton always had an eye for a quick buck. Besides dispensing quack remedies that promised to fix every ailment from indigestion to baldness, he reckoned there was good money to be made as an expert witness in criminal trials. Although America was just waking up to the possibilities offered by forensic science, courts had been slow to admit scientific testimony, largely because of the lack of qualified witnesses. Hamilton saw a gap in the market and jumped right in. Trading on his semi-scientific background he produced a brochure entitled That Man from Auburn, in which he claimed expertise in no fewer than 26 forensic specialties! These ranged from handwriting analysis, to toxicology, to fingerprints, to Hamilton's most lucrative forte – firearms identification.

Slaughter on a Snowy Morn: A Tale of Murder, Corruption and the Death Penalty Case that Shocked America
Slaughter on a Snowy Morn: A Tale of Murder, Corruption and the Death Penalty Case that Shocked America

Outstanding account of the Charles Stielow case. This is a really gripping story.

 

The Most Dangerous Man In America

Copies of this brochure were circulated to almost every practicing attorney in upstate New York and Hamilton soon found himself testifying at trials right across the state and beyond. Over the next 30 years he would become the most dangerous man in the American courtroom.

Doubts about his ability soon emerged. Savvy lawyers began to question Hamilton about his credentials as "micro-chemical investigator," but he was slick and he was quick. He always had an answer. Juries might not have understood the fancy, technical terms that larded Hamilton's testimony – that was the idea – but they were mesmerized by his authoritative delivery and they way he swatted lawyers aside like pesky mosquitoes.

In 1910 Hamilton abandoned pharmacy and became a fulltime expert witness. And he made a fortune. Often he charged $100 a day for his services, twice what the average worker could expect to earn in a month. But all the while doubts began to grow. The case that first exposed Hamilton as a shyster began in March 1915 when a semi-literate New York farmhand named Charles Stielow Charles Stielow stood trial for the double murder of his employer and his employer's housekeeper.

Charles Stielow
Charles Stielow

Garbage Testimony

Hamilton swore that bullets he'd test-fired from Stielow's .22 caliber pistol matched slugs recovered from the bodies. To prove the point he showed the jury photographic enlargements of one of the murder bullet, saying that they clearly showed the telltale marks of identification. When the defense counsel studied the photographs and declared himself unable to see the marks, Hamilton leant in and smiled. Unfortunately, he said, he'd photographed the wrong side of the bullet; the telltale marks were on the other side of the shell. Sorry about that…

Even this piece of nonsense was overshadowed by what came next. According to Hamilton, the identifying marks on the bullet had been made by nine scratches inside the barrel of the gun. Again the defense lawyer shook his head in bemused fashion. What scratches? he asked, peering down the barrel. Without missing a beat Hamilton declared that, because of the tight fit, the explosive gases had followed the bullet down the barrel and had filled in the scratches, thus rendering them invisible! But they had been there, Hamilton assured the jury.

The kind of weapon used in the murder
The kind of weapon used in the murder

On Death Row

Stielow didn't stand a chance. He was shipped off to Sing Sing where he had four dates with the electric chair – once coming within 40 minutes of execution – before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Eventually a commission was established to examine the ballistics evidence and independent experts took the view that Stielow's gun hadn't been fired in years, and, moreover, test-firings conclusively proved that it was not the murder weapon. As a result Stielow was freed in May 1918.

Sacco and Vanzetti

Despite clear evidence of having committed perjury, Hamilton carried on like nothing had happened. In 1924 he was called as a defense witness before a committee investigating the high-profile convictions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists found guilty of murdering two guards during a bungled hold-up in South Braintree, Massacusetts. According to Hamilton, Sacco's .32 Colt automatic was not the murder weapon. When handed the gun, he disassembled it slickly in front of Judge Webster Thayer, and compared it with two other Colt pistols that he had brought into court with him. Then, just as smoothly, he reassembled all three guns. Demonstration over, he handed back the Sacco gun, pocketed the other two weapons and stood up to leave. Only to be stopped by Judge Thayer. He ordered Hamilton to hand over the other two pistols. Hamilton coolly complied with the court's wishes.

Sacco and Vanzetti
Sacco and Vanzetti

Switching The Barrels

Later, one of the prosecution ballistics experts noticed something odd: the barrel on the otherwise rusted Sacco automatic looked suspiciously new. Closer inspection revealed that it had actually come from one of Hamilton's comparison guns, and that the original barrel was attached to one of the guns that Hamilton had attempted to remove from the court. Hamilton admitted that a switch had taken place, but professed himself mystified as to how it could have happened. Without Judge Thayer's gimlet-eyed scrutiny, it is entirely possible that Hamilton's sleight-of-hand might have changed the course of criminal history, allowing Sacco and Vanzetti to go free. Despite grave suspicions of evidence tampering, Hamilton once again dodged any criminal charges, although he was thrown off the defense (but only after submitting a bill for $2,800!).

'Lovebirds' - Bill Lancaster and 'Chubbie' Miller
'Lovebirds' - Bill Lancaster and 'Chubbie' Miller

Miami Heat

The following decade found him down in Miami, and this time his unsavory reputation had preceded him. He was hired by the defense team of British pilot, William Lancaster, who stood charged with shooting his rival for the affections of the noted female flyer, Jessie "Chubbie" Keith-Miller. Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, and the testimony of several local experts who said they would not believe anything Hamilton said even under oath, Hamilton's bold assertion – he always sounded supremely confident – that Haden Clarke had definitely committed suicide won over the jury and allowed Lancaster to walk free.

Trapped At Last!

But the sands of time were running out for Hamilton. His downfall came two years later, in 1934, at the Manny Strewl kidnapping trial, when he was caught red-handed, auctioning his testimony to both prosecution and defense, whoever would pay the most. Not even the silky charmer from Auburn could wangle his way out of this indiscretion. Somehow he managed to avoid prison; maybe the courts took pity on a 75-year-old man. But the big-money paydays were over. Never again did he figure in a prominent trial. The man who virtually invented the role of crooked expert witness died at his Auburn home on July 1, 1938.

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Comments 11 comments

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Oh yikes... this is a seriously disturbing subject! I'm glad that Hamilton was finally caught... it's one thing to sell phony cures for baldness but something else entirely to tamper with evidence and endanger innocent people! I can't believe he was never put in jail for his crimes though... ugh.. sometimes our justice system freaks me out.


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

You and me both, Simone. I'm still amazed Hamilton managed to get away with it for so long.


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo

Wow! This is fascinating, I love history!


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

Congratulations on your hubnugget nomination. In university I wrote a paper on The falliability of Eyewitness Testimony. It explored not lying witnesses, but witnesses who have forgotten information. There is a long time between the crime itself and the trial. Things like the wording of the question, not being asked questions about appearance right away (you will remember what you've been asked about months later, not what you weren't asked about and others-too long to mention here-) all factor in to the age long debate of whetherwe need professional jurors who know things like your memory is much worse for events of high emotion than it is ofeveryday events-all stem from this.

Whether a witness is lying or mistaken, it is the possibility that the wrong person is convicted that tends to be one of the strongest arguments people have who are against the death penality. There is no rectifying the mistake after the execution.

Congratulations on your hubnugget nomuination


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Thanks indeed for the kind comments. I agree you with completely, Flora, in your observations about eyewitness testimony, one of the most potentially dangerous aspects of the judicial system. And thanks for letting me know about the HubNugget nomination. I had no idea!


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

This makes me shudder!

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. Be sure to read and vote and promote! The more votes, the merrier! :D Best of luck!


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Will do, Ripplemaker. Thanks for dropping by.


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

This was fascinating and disturbing. It shows how easy it is for slick lawyers and crooked or incompetent expert witnesses to affect the lives of both the innocent and the guilty, not to mention the safety of the public. Congrats on your Hubnuggets nomination.


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Thanks, WannaB Writer. Fingers crossed on the nomination!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Some prosecutors are as crooked as the "experts" they hire to help win a case, never considering that if the "expert's" testimony or credentials are proved to be false, every case for which that "expert" testified can be considered tainted, giving convicted defendants grounds for a re-trial. You don't say, but I'm guessing that's what happened with most of those 100 Texas cases involving falsified autopsy reports.

Albert Hamilton should've been put behind bars as soon as it was determined he'd committed perjury early on in his career. If not then, when it was discovered he'd switched those gun barrels. Alas, unless one looks like the public's perception of a criminal, which Hamilton obviously did not, one can lie like a cheap rug in court rooms all over the land...and get paid well to boot. What a dysfunctional system of "justice"!


ccbrookes 5 years ago Author

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. This hub only begins to describe the level of Hamilton's criminality in the Stielow case. The astonishing thing is that everyone knew he was a crook, and yet prosecutors and defenders alike kept on hiring him. Whatever it takes to get the job done, I guess.

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