My Civilian Witness Surprisingly Turned Out to be an Expert

Court Case Friday”

As a young prosecutor, I put on a felony preliminary hearing in a horrific DUI death case.

The defendant was driving eastbound on Westminster Blvd. in Orange County.  He was going very fast. He was also under the influence.  He had a high level of alcohol in his blood.

The defendant approached the red light at the major intersection at Harbor Blvd. Cars were stopped, but he didn’t slow down. Instead, he slammed into the back of a stopped car with a woman driver. 

The woman’s car caught fire.  Bystanders rushed to the car and tried to open the doors, but they were jammed.  They started to break the windows, but the flames engulfed the car.  They stood back, and watched in horror, as the woman burned to death.

At the hearing, my first witness was a civilian. He was standing on the sidewalk near the intersection at the time of the accident.  I asked him to describe what happened. 

The witness explained that the defendant was he was weaving in and out of traffic.  He was going 70 mph when he rear-ended the car at the intersection.   

Defense counsel immediately objected to the 70-mph speed estimate as “lack of foundation.”  He was right. The answer was clearly objectionable. A speed estimate requires expert testimony.

But before the judge could sustain the objection, my witness blurted out, “I’m an expert.”  Taken aback, I asked him to explain. 

He said that he was an experienced U.S. Marine Corps artillery trajectory training officer.  He was an expert in visually estimating the speeds of moving vehicles so they could be targeted and destroyed. 

On further questioning by me and the defense lawyer, the judge ruled that the witness qualified as an expert in estimating the speed of vehicles. The 70-mph estimate remained.

What a pleasant surprise!


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