Senator calls for scholar's head over expert testimony

The role of academics as expert witnesses has come under scrutiny after an Australian politician called for a professor to be sacked over his role in a high-profile murder trial.

May 19, 2011

Graham Burrows, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, appeared as a defence witness for Arthur Freeman, who threw his four-year-old daughter off the Victorian state capital's West Gate Bridge.

He testified that the accused was mentally ill and did not know what he was doing, but was the only one of six experts to find that the defendant had a mental illness.

Freeman was subsequently found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in jail.

However, in a move that has sparked a heated debate about academic freedom, Julian McGauran, the Liberal senator for Victoria, said Melbourne should sack Professor Burrows for giving "concocted" evidence.

Senator McGauran used parliamentary privilege, which protects politicians from being sued for defamation, to call on Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of Melbourne, to put aside "excuses like academic freedom or acting outside the university's jurisdiction".

He went on to accuse Professor Burrows of being a "gun for hire" and a "psychiatrist of last resort...who will sing whatever song the defence wants".

A spokesman for Melbourne said witness testimony was a matter for the court, not the university. However, Senator McGauran's intervention has outraged many.

Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia, told Times Higher Education that it was "entirely inappropriate" for the senator to call for Professor Burrows' sacking.

"If the university did pursue it, it would be an abuse of academic freedom," she said. "This is a situation where the academic is acting in terms of his professional expertise, as many academics do as witnesses in court proceedings."

Simon Wessely, vice-dean of academic psychiatry at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, agreed: "For a politician to call for an expert witness to be sacked is clearly out of order and a blatant attempt to intimidate."

While experts "have a duty not to give incompetent or erroneous evidence...that is a matter for the courts, not for a politician and not for a vice-chancellor", Professor Wessely said.

He added that "it is already permissible for a judge to make unfavourable comments should he or she believe that the expert gave evidence that was unprofessional". "A judge can in effect make it impossible for an expert to appear again," he said.

Judge 'not keen' on maligned professor

Graham Burrows is a professor of psychiatry with more than 40 years' experience in the field who has appeared numerous times as witness for prosecution and defence teams.

As the sole defence witness in Arthur Freeman's trial, he told the jury that the defendant had suffered a "major depressive disorder" and was in a "severe dissociative state" when he threw his daughter to her death.

Professor Burrows said he had tested Freeman's susceptibility to hypnosis using the Stanford hypnotic clinical scale and had found it to be at the top of the measure.

According to The Age newspaper, Supreme Court Justice Paul Coghlan told the defence counsel in Professor Burrows' presence that he was "not fond" of the witness.

But he added that he "took great care not to let such matters interfere with the way things went in front of the jury".

The Age quoted Justice Coghlan as saying that he had not made any comments in court that he had not directly told Professor Burrows "in various ways over the years".

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