Testimony to the Truth
by Stephen Johnson
W. Ross Cheriton can be regarded as one of the top engineers in Canada. During his 40-year career as a forensic engineer, his expert testimony helped determine the outcome of many cases in and out of the courtroom.
Born in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Cheriton (BE’43) grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. He partially credits his time on the farm to his eventual career in engineering. “Living and working on a farm forces a person to constantly analyze and fix some problem,” remembers Cheriton. “These are also skills necessary to be a good engineer. Like many farm boys during the depression, I decided to go into engineering.”
He attended the University of Saskatchewan from 1939–43 and obtained his Bachelor of Science in Engineering. After finishing university, Cheriton served two years in the Canadian Navy during World War II.
“Forensic engineering is meticulous work. I have seen some cases go on five to 10 years. It is not like Perry Mason.”
Cheriton eventually started a successful engineering firm in Edmonton, Alberta. He did not actively seek a job in forensic engineering. “During the mid-1960s, I was approached to give testimony on a car accident case that went to court. My testimony went quite well, and the phone started to ring. Soon, I had developed something of a reputation and was accepting cases across Canada. I never sought out the career and did not have to do promotion to get work.”
Forensic engineering may appear to be a complicated profession to most people. Cheriton had a knack of explaining complex scientific principles in a clear and concise manner. “Forensic engineering is the act of investigating various problems of a public nature and being able to explain those problems. You also need the ability to explain very technical material in a manner that a judge or jury will understand.”
Cheriton is also very clear in understanding the role he played in helping cases being decided outside of court. “It has been my experience that insurance companies and commercial organizations try to avoid a case going to court. Cases of a technical matter can often be drawn-out and very expensive. It is not cheap to hire a forensic engineer, but I once had an insurance company say, ‘Take your time but get it right.’ Mistakes can be very costly.”
In the rare situation that a case did go to trial, Cheriton was not daunted by the courtroom setting. “I did not find testifying in court to be particularly stressful. You certainly have to be careful about what you say. The opposing lawyer will certainly try to trip you up, but that is part of the game. It takes a certain kind of person. You need to be believed and offer explanations that are clear and understandable.”
Hollywood movies and television shows have created a certain picture of forensic investigation where a case is solved in an hour—and there is always a smoking gun. Cheriton is quick to dispel this myth. “Forensic engineering is meticulous work. I have seen some cases go on five to 10 years. It is not like Perry Mason.”
Cheriton was not afraid to go against the authorities in his dogged pursuit of the facts. “I had a number of cases where my findings contradicted the fire, police and insurance investigators. In most instances, my research proved correct. It is impossible for police and fire investigators to be experts on everything in the field of forensics. In forensic engineering, it is necessary not to become prematurely convinced of an answer. The mind naturally finds comfort in finding an answer to a problem. You need to have a self-examining disposition in order to be successful in this profession.”
Achieving much success both in and out of court, Cheriton eventually sold his main engineering practice to his employees in 1980 so he could devote his full attention to a career in forensic engineering. Cheriton’s area of expertise was the failure of electrical equipment and the explosions, electrocutions and fires that occurred when something went wrong. The bulk of his clients were corporate businesses and large industry.
He would also take cases where his testimony directly aided the less fortunate. In one instance, Cheriton’s evidence proved that a truck driver in rural Saskatchewan did not burn down his house for insurance money, even though the RCMP, Saskatchewan Government Insurance, and the provincial fire marshal all claimed that he had.
Cheriton did not only achieve success in his cases. He also gained the professional respect of his peers. Cheriton joined the American Academy of Forensic Sciences—the world’s leading professional society dedicated to the application of science to the law—in 1982 and presented a number of important papers at their annual meetings.
Since becoming a forensic engineer, Cheriton has seen many changes in technology. One might think that computers have taken over the art of forensic science, but Cheriton disagrees. “Computers are a great source of information,” he said. “People can get fooled into thinking they have found the answer just because they have used a computer. You still need to put in the time to consider all the different possibilities to a problem.”
In 2005, Cheriton decided to retire from the profession at the age of 85. Now, at 90, he looks back fondly on his time in forensic engineering. “I had great fun. It was a wonderful career but like everything, it cannot go on forever. I have no regrets.”