Hark back to your favorite episode of Law & Order. Jack McCoy is in court, grilling an expert witness whose testimony is critical to the outcome of a big case. In real-life animal cruelty cases, the veterinarian is that expert on the stand, and his or her report can make the difference between a guilty or innocent equine abuse verdict.

Because of the significance of the veterinarian’s role in these cases, Reese Frederickson, MBA, JD, Pine County attorney in Pine City, Minnesota, described how vets can help prosecutors do their jobs while at the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida.

The prosecution’s role in an animal abuse case is to decide whether criminal charges are warranted based on the materials at hand—law enforcement reports, veterinary reports, humane agent reports, photos, video, and witness statements.

“The equine veterinarian is the prosecutor’s most important resource and witness” in these cases, said Frederickson.

The vet report, in particular, is the primary consideration used in determining charges, he said. A great report addresses the level of harm to the animal(s); is thorough, reasonable, and objective; and contains rule outs (e.g., a disease such as strangle is not to blame for the horse’s condition).

If the veterinary report is strong enough, the accused might plead guilty and the case won’t even go to trial. Whereas “a biased, unprofessional, incomplete report is your ticket to court,” said Frederickson.

If a case does go to trial, the veterinarian who was on the scene will most likely be a key expert witness due to his or her education, experience, and first-hand knowledge of the situation. In preparing for this role, the practitioner should meet with the prosecutor ahead of time, familiarize him or herself with the courtroom, and gather and organize any CVs, transcripts, and case documentation.

To be an effective expert witness, Frederickson said veterinarians should:

  • Know their audience—the jury. The typical juror is a deductive reasoner, he said. Speak to the jury when answering questions, and be polite and friendly with responses.
  • Avoid being condescending intellectuals. Use nontechnical language and visual aids; give thorough explanations; and demonstrate fairness and objectivity, said Frederickson.
  • Be teachers. “Consider ways to take complicated testimony and make it simple and interesting for the students (the jurors),” he said.
  • Share their enthusiasm and passion for what they do. “That enthusiasm will be noticed and appreciated by the jurors and make the expert likeable,” he said.
  • Not be afraid to admit they don’t know or understand something. It trumps speculating or guessing.

Inevitably, cross-examination by the opposing attorney follows the veterinary expert’s testimony. This can be an intimidating process.

“The opposing attorney’s goals are to destroy the expert witness’ credibility, reduce the expert’s likeability, and ask leading or limiting questions,” said Frederickson. “For example, a defense attorney in an animal cruelty case will often argue disease as a defense, not negligence of care; they may attempt to get the equine veterinarian for the state to admit that disease could have been a factor in order to bolster their theory of the case.”

He reminds veterinarians to remain calm, polite, and confident if the cross-examining attorney tries to shake their confidence or make them agitated or flustered. “The best way to combat this technique is to remain calm and exceedingly polite,” he said. “This will make the cross-examining lawyer look like a bully.”

In conclusion, he said, the veterinarian is an effective and indispensable resource in animal cruelty prosecutions. “I can’t emphasize enough as a prosecutor the importance of the veterinarian in these cases.”