Category Archives: Expert testimony

Quick links – investigations, courtroom, punishment, profiling and more


Quick links from around the web and blogosphere:

Investigations and courtroom :

The Sunday Times (25 Nov) reports on a new facial morphing technique called EvoFIT “that transforms the Photofit faces of criminal suspects into animated caricatures up to seven times more likely to be recognised than standard likenesses”. The system was developed by UK psychologists, one of whom commented that using the new system leads to “…a massive jump in the level of recognition [which] is really reliable”. Lots more information including plenty of downloadable papers on the EvoFIT webpages .

The Eyewitness Identification Reform blog highlights scholarly commentary on the effectiveness of cross-examination for getting at the truth of eyewitness evidence.

Following a detailed and extensively researched analysis, Prof. Epstein [the author of the commentary] concludes that the highly revered truth-seeking tool of cross-examination, while perhaps effective at rooting out liars, is utterly ineffective at uncovering the truth when faced with a witness who is confident, but honestly mistaken about what he or she remembers – which accounts for the majority of cases in which mistaken identification has led to wrongful conviction.

Mo over at Neurophilosophy (a great blog that doesn’t often post on forensic issues) discusses research on creating false memories by doctoring photographs. Participants who saw altered images had different memories of the events in the photographs:

For example, those participants shown the doctored photograph of [a] protest in Rome…in which figures placed in the foreground give the impression of violence, rated the event as being significantly more violent and negative than it actually was. In their comments, they also provided false details, such as conflicts, damages, injuries and casualties that did not appear in the photos and were not documented at the event.

The whole issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology is about ‘cognition and the media’ and includes other papers on the fallability of memory, which will be of use to anyone interested in eyewitness memory.

Anne Reed at the fabulous Deliberations blog reports on research into the Grim Power of Grim Evidence. Apparently “jurors presented with gruesome evidence, such as descriptions or images of torture and mutilation, are up to five times more likely to convict a defendant than jurors not privy to such evidence.”


The ever-interesting Karen Franklin comments on juvenile detention, and starts by posing some simple questions with disturbing answers. Did you know, for instance, that only two nations sentence children to life in prison? According to Karen, they are Israel, with 7 child lifers, and the USA, with an astonishing 2,387 child lifers.

Michael Connolly at Corrections Sentencing offers a detailed discussion of an article which “calls for broad application of empirical psychology to the study of the motive behind punishments”. The article is in press and due to appear in 2008.

  • Reference: Carlsmith, K.M., & Darley, J.M. (in press). Psychological aspects of retributive justice. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, M. Zanna, Ed. (Elsevier, NY, 2008) vol. 41.


The criminal psychopath is the topic of a post at Top Two Inches, and over at the Deception Blog, a comment on research on whether psychopathic liars give themselves away through their verbal behaviour.


Crimson Shadows posts (with permission) the full text of ex-FBI profiler John Douglas’s response to Malcolm Gladwell’s article on profiling that appeared in the New Yorker last month. Douglas argues that Gladwell’s article misrepresents the science and practice of profiling.


Terrific analysis of an fMRI study linking paedophilia to differences in the brain over at the Brain Ethics blog,  critiquing both the method and the interpretation of the results of this study.  In sum “at the least, just because the brain shows a difference, one cannot conclude anything beyond this about causation.”

The BPS Research Digest has also included a couple of forensically relevant posts recently: detecting feigned mental retardation and inter-ethnic violence.

As well as the post on juvenile detention mentioned above, Karen Franklin’s posted a lot of other good stuff recently too, including pointing us towards a Canadian news article on false confessions, commenting on how the UK is considering stricter controls on the use of expert scientific evidence, and a great piece on tracking serial killers in South Africa.

Romeo Vitelli’s Providentia blog reports on an intervention program for young victims of violence, child abuse and brain development, and an usual case of car fetishism.

Photo credit: bigeoino, Creative Commons License

Quick links


Having neglected this blog somewhat in recent weeks I find myself now overwhelmed with interesting snippets from around the web and blogosphere. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

The Eyewitness Reform Blog reports on a conviction “overturned for failure to “seriously consider” expert testimony on eyewitness factors”: “The court didn’t go as far as to say that it was error to exclude the expert testimony, but citing Illinois case law, found that it was error to fail to provide a reasoned basis for its exclusion.”

The Eyewitness Reform Blog also highlights the recent publication of an article in the NIJ Journal on making eyewitness identification in police line-ups more reliable.

Convicted conman Frank Abnegale claims that a combination of technology and living in “an extremely unethical society” has made crime easier: “You can build all the security systems in the world; you can build the most sophisticated technology, and all it takes is one weak link — someone who operates that technology — to bring it all down” (hat tip to Slashdot).

Some great posts from Romeo Vitelli at Providentia recently, including the tale of a psychotic priest killer, an exorcism case in Singapore, the killer who boasted about how easy it was to lie to psychiatrists, Guy de Maupassant’s struggle with neurosyphilis and two articles on shell shock.

Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast has also had some interesting posts up in the last few weeks, including a critique of the “policy many police and probation departments have adopted of rounding up all the registered sex offenders in their community into custody on Halloween night to keep them from having children come to their door” (see also Karen Franklin’s post) and a comment on the fact that although Americans are less likely to be victims of crime, their fear of crime just keeps rising.

Forensic psych Karen Franklin highlights some interesting (and free) articles on sex offending in the journal Sexual Offender Treatment. Whilst I’m talking about Karen, I’ll point you to a great little piece she wrote in September in which she demolishes a few myths and provides some practical advice about what it takes to become a forensic psych.

Michael Connolly at Corrections Sentencing points us towards the impressive set of evaluation resources over at the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Carnival Against Sexual Violence 34 is up at Abyss2Hope.

Photo credit: bigeoino, Creative Commons License

New issue: Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 18(3)


Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 18(3) is now online. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • Theory of mind function, motor empathy, emotional empathy and schizophrenia: A single case study – Karen Addy; Karen Shannon; Kevin Brookfield
  • The development of a scale for measuring offence-related feelings of shame and guilt – Kim Wright; Gisli H. Gudjonsson
  • An audit of the association between the use of antipsychotic medication and bone density measurement in female patients within a special (high security) hospital – Jane Orr; Liz Jamieson
  • A study of forensic psychiatric screening reports and their relationship to full psychiatric reports – Pål Grøndahl; Stein E. Ikdahl; Alv A. Dahl
  • Staff responses to the therapeutic environment: A prospective study comparing burnout among nurses working on male and female wards in a medium secure unit – Rajan Nathan; Andrew Brown; Karen Redhead; Gill Holt; Jonathan Hill
  • Evaluating innovative treatments in forensic mental health: A role for single case methodology? – Jason Davies; Kevin Howells; Lawrence Jones
  • The identification and management of suicide risk in local prisons – Jane Senior; Adrian J. Hayes; Daniel Pratt; Stuart D. Thomas; Tom Fahy; Morven Leese; Andy Bowen; Greg Taylor; Gillian Lever-Green; Tanya Graham; Anna Pearson; Mukhtar Ahmed; Jenny J. Shaw
  • The validity of the Violence Risk Scale second edition (VRS-2) in a British forensic inpatient sample – Mairead Dolan; Rachael Fullam
  • Criminal barristers’ opinions and perceptions of mental health expert witnesses – Ophelia Leslie; Susan Young; Tim Valentine; Gisli Gudjonsson
  • The Michael Stone Inquiry: A somewhat different homicide report – Herschel Prins

New issue: Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 30(1)


The Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 30(1) is now online. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • Police detectives’ perceptions of giving evidence in court – Mark R. Kebbell, Caitriona M.E. O’Kelly
  • What makes a good investigative interviewer of children?: A comparison of police officers’ and experts’ perceptions – Rebecca Wright, Martine B. Powell
  • Address matching bias: ignorance is not bliss – Gisela Bichler, Stefanie Balchak
  • Is neighborhood policing related to informal social control? – Brian C. Renauer
  • Policing alcohol-related incidents: a study of time and prevalence – Gavan Palk, Jeremy Davey, James Freeman
  • The structure of informal communication between police agencies – Aki Roberts, John M. Roberts Jr
  • Area policing and public perceptions in a non-urban setting: one size fits one – Authors: John P. Crank, Andrew L. Giacomazzi
  • The threat of mission distortion in police-probation partnerships – David Murphy, John L. Worrall

New issue: Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law


The March 2007 issue of Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 35(1) is now online. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Some of the contents are listed below the fold, but I particularly like the sound of this article: The Problem of Evasive Testimony: The Expert “Waffle” by Thomas G. Gutheil, MD. From the abstract:

Confronted with a difficult, unexpected, or confrontational question, an expert witness may answer by attempting to overwhelm the questioner with words, sometimes highly evasive ones, that avoid, rather than actually address, the question asked. Such a discursive response is sometimes called a “waffle,” as in “The expert’s answer was a waffle.” This review notes some examples of this phenomenon and attempts to categorize them in a meaningful way. An ancillary goal of this discussion may be to aid experts in focusing their answers.

Continue reading New issue: Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law

Cognitive science and the law

The always-interesting Trends in Cognitive Sciences carries a review article this month on Cognitive science and the law by Thomas Busey and Geoffrey Loftus. From the abstract:

Numerous innocent people have been sent to jail based directly or indirectly on normal, but flawed, human perception, memory and decision making. Current cognitive-science research addresses the issues that are directly relevant to the connection between normal cognitive functioning and such judicial errors, and suggests means by which the false-conviction rate could be reduced. Here, we illustrate how this can be achieved by reviewing recent work in two related areas: eyewitness testimony and fingerprint analysis. We articulate problems in these areas with reference to specific legal cases and demonstrate how recent findings can be used to address them. We also discuss how researchers can translate their conclusions into language and ideas that can influence and improve the legal system.


Scientific American Mind on criminal behaviour

The latest edition of Scientific American Mind (Dec 06/Jan 07) has a cover story entitled “The Violent Brain”:

[…] what drives one person to kill, maim or abuse another, sometimes for little or no obvious reason–and why do so many violent offenders return to crime after serving time in prison? Are these individuals incapable of any other behavior? We have evaluated the results of studies conducted around the world, focusing on acts ranging from fist fights to murder, in search of the psychobiological roots of violence. Our key conclusion is simple: violent behavior never erupts from a single cause. Rather it results from a combination of risk factors–among them inherited tendencies, a traumatic childhood and other negative experiences–that interact and aggravate one another. This realization has a silver lining: positive influences may be able to offset some of those factors that promote violence, possibly offering hope for prevention.

The same issue also includes a commentary from Scott T. Grafton, Walter P. Sinnott-Armstrong, Suzanne I. Gazzaniga and Michael S. Gazzaniga on admitting fMRI scans as evidence in court:

Imagine that you are a judge presiding over the trial of a man named Bill, accused of a grisly murder. The physical evidence is overwhelming, and witnesses have yielded damning testimony. There seems to be no reasonable doubt that Bill committed the murder. Suddenly, the defense asks if it can present images of Bill’s brain, produced by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Bill’s attorneys want to introduce the pictures as evidence that their client has a brain abnormality. They will argue that the abnormality justifies either a verdict of not guilty (because Bill lacked the intent to kill or premeditation to commit murder), or a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity (because Bill lacked control over his actions), or, at least, a conviction on a lesser offense (because Bill is not fully responsible or possibly just because jurors should feel sorry for people with brain disorders). The prosecution argues that you should not admit the scans, because pictures of Bill’s brain and testimony by revered scientists might influence the jury much more than such evidence warrants.

Link to table of contents.

No memory expert for Libby trial

An update to the earlier story about the use of expert evidence on memory in the trial of Scooter Libby (MSNBC, 2 Nov):

A key defense witness – a proposed memory expert – in the CIA/Leak trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Cheney, will not be allowed to testify at the upcoming trial. Judge Reggie Walton, in an opinion Thursday, wrote the testimony of memory export, Dr. Robert Bjork, chairman UCLA’s psychology department, would be a “waste of time,” and could mislead and confuse a jury. Libby’s attorneys had argued many potential jurors do not understand the limits of memory and Libby should be allowed to call an expert to make that clear to them.

Elizabeth Loftus and Scooter Libby…

A few sources are reporting on what sounds like a horrible few hours in the witness stand for renowned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, called as an expert witness in a pre-trial hearing in the case of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Libby will be on trial for allegedly obstructing the investigation into the leaking of the name of a CIA officer, and part of his defence is that he misremembered conversations that he had with reporters concerning former CIA officer Valerie Plame. So whether jurors in Libby’s trial (due to start in January) really understand how memory works could be important when they decide whether he deliberately lied. Loftus was called as a witness for the defence. The Washington Post (27 Oct) takes up the story:

For more than an hour of the pretrial hearing, Loftus calmly explained to Judge Reggie B. Walton her three decades of expertise in human memory and witness testimony. Loftus asserted that, after copious scientific research, she has found that many potential jurors do not understand the limits of memory and that Libby should be allowed to call an expert to make that clear to them.

But when Fitzgerald got his chance to cross-examine Loftus about her findings, he had her stuttering to explain her own writings and backpedaling from her earlier assertions. Citing several of her publications, footnotes and the work of her peers, Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense.

Handwriting experts disagree over JonBenet Ramsey suspect

On 22 August the Rocky Mountain News reported that “a well-known national handwriting expert […] is 99.9 percent certain John Mark Karr wrote the ransom note found near the scene of JonBenet Ramsey’s murder.”

“Most guys are riding the fence,” said Curt Baggett, the Texas-based co-founder of the School of Forensic Document Examination. “But there are at least a dozen traits that match up perfectly, when comparing a (high school) yearbook signed by Karr and the ransom note.” Some of those traits are fairly common, while others are rare, he said. That there are so many similarities pushes the odds up into the seven digits. To put it another way, Baggett said, the “chances are a million-to- one” that someone other than Karr wrote the ransom note.

[…] Other experts are less certain than Baggett about the note’s origin, and they expect competing testimony should the case ever go to trial. […] Ronald Morris, a Virginia-based expert who spent 23 years as a document examiner with the Secret Service, said everyone is getting ahead of themselves. He said making conclusions without seeing the actual document is “absolute BS.”

Further speculation and recourse to ‘experts’ on both sides in the San Diego Union Tribune/Associated Press (23 August), in ‘Can JonBenet slaying suspect be linked to mysterious ransom note?‘, together with a wise word of caution:

David Krajicek, a former professor and co-founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, said the Internet has made it easy for reporters to find an expert in any field at a moment’s notice. But it’s not always clear who is the best qualified to comment. And when it comes to analyzing handwriting or finding hidden meaning in cryptic passages, there’s plenty of room for conjecture. “You like to think the guy or the woman knows what they’re talking about,” Krajicek said. “There’s no guarantee. This is not a medical science. So much of it is opinion, so much of it is punditry.”