Poison And Expert Witnesses: A Constant Struggle

639 words - 3 pages

Poison, as a method of murder, has historically shown itself to be a method filled with uncertainties, questions and simple inconclusiveness. The sometimes unknown combinations of solutions deemed poison along with the sometimes untraceable nature of the method of ingestion all led to poison taking a place near the top of the hierarchy of methods for murder. Poison could be administered in many different forms such as in food and drink and although believed to leave signs, sometimes killed without any visible distinction or detection. This uncertainty associated with poison allowed its role and influence in society and the courts to take on a higher level of variability and believability. In the case of William Palmer, the role of “poison” and evidence related to poison ultimately led to the conviction of Palmer. What is interesting is that as a segment of medico-legal history, poison has been one of the few items with an inherently negative effect. Phrenology and eugenics, for example, all had a negative effect on medico-legal history, but ignoring the race-based argument behind these methods, their goal was to improve the ability to detect and determine who were criminals and who were not. The advancement of the detective and medical examiner all lead to more efficient means of solving crimes. Poison, as a medico-legal advancement was meant to set back the efficiency of solving crimes. Combined with the so-called expert testimony in the courtroom, the fear associated with the variability of poison lead to its overall success in the courtroom even when science and scientific evidence (experts) lacked in its ability to prove its role and even its existence in a crime.
The amount of publicity around the William Palmer case helped stoke society’s fascination and absolute fear regarding poison. The testimony of death by strychnine without conclusive evidence helped advance the fear of the uncertainty and detectability of poison. As Burney states, “the peculiar terror...

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