Human Studies

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 107–131 | Cite as

Demonstrating “Reasonable Fear” at Trial: Is it Science or Junk Science?

  • Stacy Lee BurnsEmail author
Research Paper


This paper explores how scientific knowledge is used in a criminal case. I examine materials from an admissibility hearing in a murder trial and discuss the dynamics of contesting expert scientific opinion and evidence. The research finds that a purported form of “science” in the relevant scientific community is filtered through, tested by, and subjected to legal standards, conceptions, and procedures for determining admissibility. The paper details how the opposing lawyers, the expert witness, and the judge vie to contingently work out what will count in court as appropriate scientific authority, methods and evidence, and as a scientifically valid and legally admissible account of “reasonable fear.” When science becomes enmeshed in legal controversies, science does not trump law. Rather, it is the court’s canons of proper procedure and measures of substantive adequacy that take precedence.


Admissibility hearing Expert witness Law and science Junk science Reasonable fear Self-defense 



I am deeply indebted to Doug Macbeth for his extremely helpful comments and editorial suggestions on an early draft of this paper, and to Michael Lynch for his many analytic insights on a later draft. I also thank the anonymous journal reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyLoyola Marymount UniversityLos AngelesUSA

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