One of the best ways end the scourge of wrongful convictions is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. That starts with competent defense teams backed by expert witnesses and unbiased news coverage. But that doesn’t always happen.
Phil Locke reported here how vicious social media attacks on an experienced expert witness for the defense in the heated Jodi Arias murder trial put her in the emergency room for anxiety attacks and palpitations. Experts asked to testify for the defense in controversial trials undoubtedly take note.
Now The Seattle Times has been rebuked by the independent Washington News Council for inaccurately and unfairly representing the work of a forensic psychologist who testifies for defense attorneys in its investigative series on the state’s sexually violent predator program. Relying on prosecution sources, the council said, reporter Christine Willmsen unfairly portrayed Richard Wollert as a hack who promulgated unorthodox theories in order to line his own pockets, quoting detractors who called him an “outlier” who spoke “mumbo jumbo.”
During a June 1 hearing, Wollert said the Times series had “tainted the Washington jury pool” by implying that psychologists who testify for the defense are not credible, damaged his professional reputation and caused his income to plummet.
“By relying almost exclusively on prosecution sources,” forensic psychologist Karen Franklin wrote in her In the News blog, “Willmsen became nothing more than a mouthpiece for government efforts to discredit and silence experts who present judges and juries with information that they don’t like.” She added:
“The main theme of the series was that defense-retained experts were gouging the state. Willmsen wrote that Wollert made more than $100,000 on one SVP case; in a video from the series, Wollert is shown testifying that he earned $1.2 million from sexually violent predator cases in Washington and other states over a two-year period. That’s a big chunk of taxpayer money, and the revelation undoubtedly caused public outrage against defense attorneys and their experts.
“Willmsen wrote that government experts were not paid that much. However, this is patently false. While Willmsen was researching the series, a California psychiatrist who is popular with Washington prosecutors was charging $450 per hour (the average among forensic psychologists being about half that) and — like Wollert — had billed more than $100,000 in a single case. His name does not show up anywhere in the series.
“Following publication of the series, Washington capped the fees of defense-retained SVP experts at $10,000 for evaluations, a fee that includes all travel expenses, and $6,000 for testifying (including preparation time, travel, and deposition testimony). There is no legal cap on the fees of prosecution-retained experts.”
That was a big victory for prosecutors, with an assist from the press, and a big loss for those trying to protect the potentially innocent.