Clinical Managers in Action: Nicole Stahlmann on Court Testimony

How does a survivor request a FNE to testify?

In criminal cases, forensic nurse examiners are subpoenaed to testify by the prosecutor, not the survivor themselves. Once the FNE receives the subpoena and the trial date, they are able to begin preparing.

What type of testimony can FNEs provide?

Forensic nurse examiners can provide both fact and expert witness testimony in criminal and civil legal proceedings. Fact witness testimony means the FNE will testify to what they personally observed during the medical forensic exam and documented on the medical forensic chart. Expert witness testimony means the FNE is qualified by the court as an expert in the field of forensic nursing, based on education, experience, and certification, and can provide their opinion on what the evidence presented may conclude.

How much preparation does it take prior to court?

If I am providing fact witness testimony, I generally prepare for 5-7 hours. However, if I have been asked to testify as an expert witness, I often will prepare for over 20 hours. Preparation includes researching and reading journal articles to support my testimony, reviewing the medical forensic chart and photos, and sitting down with the attorneys to cover practice questions.

When DCFNE nurses are subpoenaed to testify, they are required to complete court preparation with me prior to the trial date. This includes reviewing the medical forensic chart together for potential areas of discussion when testifying, and any areas for improvement to enhance their future testimony. We then analyze the photographs they took, and if necessary discuss ways to advance their photography skills.

The work of FNEs can be really clinical, how do you translate clinical language into language the jury and judge will understand? 

In all of our court preparation and in trainings, we practice ways of explaining medical forensic terminology to the judge, jury, and attorneys. For example, I don’t expect them to know what Patterned Injuries are, therefore I explain it as blunt force trauma or tissue trauma, in which you can identify an object or tool which created the injury. We do this to educate the courtroom, so they can better understand the medical forensic chart, review of photos, and different types of injury.

How often have you been called to testify in court?

In the past 2-3 years, I have prepared testimony for over 10 cases. Six were fact witness testimony and 4 were expert witness testimony. There were also several trials which have been continued or where the defendant took a plea deal. I’ve also prepared more than 15 FNEs for courtroom testimony. Each time I’ve worked with our nurses, it has provided me with valuable continuing education and a stronger foundation for testifying myself.

What is the most challenging part about testifying in court?

The most challenging part of testifying is remembering the jury is full of people from various backgrounds. Speaking to them inclusively, looking at them and making eye contact, helps humanize the situation and creates a connection beyond just a back and forth between the attorneys and myself. Another challenge for me is overcoming the urge to anticipate questions. It’s a struggle, because you never know what question is coming next, especially from the opposing counsel. To get over this, I tell myself and our nurses to relax and listen to the entire question before answering.