[From High Bailiff Laughton's Recollections, 1911]
In the course of my practice I have had some considerable experience in the examination and cross-examination of medical witnesses, and I think I can speak with authority of the mode in which they generally give evidence, and the strength or weakness of it. Those of them who are young or inexperienced in Courts of Law are very apt to speak in too decided terms of the effect of blows, and the cause of death, and thereby upon cross-examination, they are generally compelled to modify very considerably what they have dogmatically affirmed in their examination-in-chief; and in consequence, ordinary Juries, who cannot be expected to appreciate the nice distinction with which experts are familiar, are, not seldom, led to form an unfavourable opinion of the accuracy or knowledge of the medical witness under examination.
I will illustrate this by a case in which I appeared for the Prisoner. The wife of my client had been found by the Police at the foot of the stairs in his house, perfectly dead. The evidence at the trial was that the husband and wife had had a fierce war of words in the room above, and outside on the landing; that finally he had struck her, and that she had fallen down the stairs and was found dead at the foot.
Upon a post-mortem examination, it was ascertained that the outer table of the skull had been fractured, and that immediately under such fracture, between the membrane of the " Pia-mater " and the " Dura-mater" there was extravasation of blood. There could be no possible doubt, therefore, that the extravasation upon the brain was the cause of death; and this, at the trial, I did not venture to controvert; but there remained the question as to what was the cause of this extravasation.
The Crown produced medical evidence to prove that the fracture of the skull was the cause of it, and there certainly could be very little difficulty in arriving at this conclusion, inasmuch as the locality where the fracture occurred exactly corresponded with the place where the rupture of the blood-vessels had taken place.
The principal medical witness for the Crown. upon his examination-in-chief, swore in the most positive manner that the extravasation was caused by the fracture upon which he said there could be no possible doubt.
The Jurymen, I could see, paid close attention to this evidence and I observed that the Foreman took a note of it. Now in my pretty long practical experience in the profession I have noticed that there is scarcely one single medical question upon which learned doctors cannot be found to differ; and when I heard this witness speak with such dogmatism I felt that I should be able to smash his evidence in the minds of the Jury. The first question which, upon cross-examination. I put to him, was, " Do you admit, sir, that Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor is an eminent member of your profession?"
Witness, " Certainly."
I then opened Dr. Taylor's great work upon " The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence," and said, " You have sworn most positively that the extravasation was caused by the fracture, upon which point you say there could be no possible doubt. Do you adhere to that statement?"
Witness, " Certainly."
I then read from Taylor that " the rupture of a blood vessel, and the extensive effusion of blood on the brain may take place from simple excitement and passion." "Do you agree with Dr. Taylor in this opinion?"
Witness, " I certainly would not set my opinion against Dr. Taylor's."
" Do you then withdraw your own opinion ? Witness, " I modify it."
"Whose opinion do you think it would be safer for the Jury to rely upon, yours or Dr. Taylor's?"
Witness, " Dr. Taylor, of course, occupies a much higher position in the profession than I can pretend to."
" I shall. ask you one more question. In cases of death from natural causes, such as apoplexy, is not extravasation of blood found where it was discovered in this case, viz., between the " Pia-mater " and the " Duramater ? "
Witness, " It is so."
I did not think it prudent to produce any medical witnesses, for this reason. I knew that the evidence which they would probably give, was that which the witness for the Crown ought to have given, viz., that either the fracture of the skull, or real anger or excitement, might have caused the rupture of the bloodvessels and consequent death; but that the fracture was the more likely and probable cause, whereas the witness on the other side had attempted to prove too much, and then had gone to the other extreme and proved too little. The Crown might more likely have succeeded had they brought no medical evidence at all. As it was, the Jury thought that there was a reasonable doubt as to the cause of death, and accordingly acquitted the Prisoner.