Category Archives: Disputed convictions

Free access to Sage journals gives you a chance to read all about science and pseudoscience in policing

Once again Sage Journals is throwing its archive open – you can get free access to all Sage journals until 31 October if you register first. A great opportunity to stock up on articles in journals that you or your library don’t subscribe to.

Can I, in particular, recommend you take a look at the latest issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior? It’s a special on “Pseudoscientific Policing Practices and Beliefs” pulled together by guest editor Brent Snook. Scott Lilienfeld and Kristin Landfield’s overview of science and pseudoscience is just ok (I don’t think it’s as good as it could be), but there are useful reviews (among others) of hypnosis in a legal setting (Graham Wagstaff), of detecting deception (Aldert Vrij), and of false confessions (Saul Kassin). These reviews will prove invaluable if you’re new to these areas of research or need a refresher.

Also in this issue, Snook and colleagues examine why criminal profiling is so seductive, when much of what passes for profiling is simply – according to the authors – “smoke and mirrors”. They conclude:

There is a growing belief that profilers can accurately and consistently predict a criminal’s characteristics based on crime scene evidence… We contend that this belief is illusory because a critical analysis of research on CP [criminal profiling] showed that the field lacks theoretical grounding and empirical support.

And there’s an extraordinary and provocative critique of the FBI’s programme to introduce Critical Incident Stress Debriefing for its agents, co-authored by a former agent who was involved in the programme. The authors bemoan the fact that although the business of “law enforcement is inextricably tied to facts, objectivity, organization, and high standards of proof” (p.1342), the FBI did not (according to the authors) apply the same standards when evaluating a stress debriefing programme for its agents. The evidence for the effectiveness of CISD is scant, argue the authors (and there is some evidence that CISD may even be harmful to people exposed to severe trauma). So, the authors explain: “We are thus compelled to consider how an idea so poorly grounded and so seriously discredited came to hold so tenacious a footing in the employee assistance practices of what is arguably the world’s most sophisticated law enforcement agency” (p.1342). Newbold, Lohr and Gist’s concluding comments could serve as an epitaph for the entire issue:

Pseudoscience finds its foothold where the blurring of boundaries allows the imperatives of evidentiary warrant shared by both domains to become compromised. It takes many years of training and experience to become competent as either a law enforcement agent or a psychologist, and either role requires strong focus and strict boundaries to be executed effectively. Police officers who want to play shrink and psychologists who want to play cop run a serious risk of blurring those boundaries.

Here are the contents in full:

  • Brent Snook – Introduction to the Special Issue: Pseudoscientific Policing Practices and Beliefs
  • Scott O. Lilienfeld and Kristin Landfield – Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement: A User-Friendly Primer
  • Michael G. Aamodt – Reducing Misconceptions and False Beliefs in Police and Criminal Psychology
  • John Turtle and Stephen C. Want – Logic and Research Versus Intuition and Past Practice as Guides to Gathering and Evaluating Eyewitness Evidence
  • Brent Snook, Richard M. Cullen, Craig Bennell, Paul J. Taylor, and Paul Gendreau – The Criminal Profiling Illusion: What’s Behind the Smoke and Mirrors?
  • Graham F. Wagstaff – Hypnosis and the Law: Examining the Stereotypes
  • William G. Iacono – Effective Policing: Understanding How Polygraph Tests Work and Are Used
  • Saul M. Kassin – Confession Evidence: Commonsense Myths and Misconceptions
  • Aldert Vrij – Nonverbal Dominance Versus Verbal Accuracy in Lie Detection: A Plea to Change Police Practice
  • Katherine M. Newbold, Jeffrey M. Lohr, and Richard Gist – Apprehended Without Warrant: Issues of Evidentiary Warrant for Critical Incident Services and Related Trauma Interventions in a Federal Law Enforcement Agency
  • David C. Flagel and Paul Gendreau – Commentary: Sense, Common Sense, and Nonsense

Did a psychological profile go too far?

Did a psychological profile go too far? Via the Associated Press, 6 April:

His life a shambles after he was sent to prison for murder, then set free with new evidence, Timothy Masters paused to reflect on the calamitous series of events that brought him to ruin’s precipice. Almost 21 years passed before DNA evidence proved what he’d been saying all along: He is no killer. He was just a teenage boy with a hobby of drawing gruesome pictures. His sketches of shootings, stabbings, explosions, torture were used as evidence to convict him of killing an aspiring writer in 1987, a conviction that was ultimately overturned.

But the prosecution of Masters raises troubling questions, primarily because it pivoted on the controversial opinions of a board certified forensic psychologist who analyzed the sketches and concluded Masters was guilty. He was convicted without a single shred of direct physical evidence or witnesses.

Karen Franklin has blogged extensively on this case, and her thoughtful and informative posts are well worth a read if you are interested in a case study of profiling-gone-very-wrong. There are links to other press coverage and Karen has uploaded the transcript of forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy’s testimony in this case (access here – pdf). The easiest way to access these is to select the ‘profiling’ tag in her blog – the most recent six posts in this category are about the Masters case. Aspiring profilers: watch and learn.

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

Docuticker round-up

ex libris gul law reports collectionLatest criminal justice-related reports via Docuticker:

Juror attitudes and biases in sexual assault cases, published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (pdf):

…This paper presents findings from two recent studies […that] show that juror judgements in rape trials are influenced more by the attitudes, beliefs and biases about rape which jurors bring with them into the courtroom than by the objective facts presented, and that stereotypical beliefs about rape and victims of it still exist within the community.

Recidivism in Australia : findings and future research, published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (pdf):

This report deals with important questions relating to recidivism research. It provides a conceptual framework through which recidivism can be defined and interpreted and arms researchers and policy makers with a battery of tools useful in critical assessment of the research literature.

Courtroom Demeanor: The Theater of the Courtroom, from the Minnesota Law Review (via SSRN):

…Trials are affected by many factors, including the appearance and demeanor of the defendant. This article proposes an approach to deal with non-testifying demeanor evidence that occurs outside the witness box. Given the problems with having jurors rely on demeanor evidence, courts should be carefully monitoring the use of non-testifying demeanor evidence. Appropriate jury instructions should be given, including those warning jurors on proper use of such evidence.

Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction: Why We Know so Little, and New Data on Capital Cases, a University of Michigan Public Law Working Paper (via SSRN):

In the first part of this paper we address the problems inherent in studying wrongful convictions: our pervasive ignorance and the extreme difficulty of obtaining the data that we need to answer even basic questions. ….In the second part we dispel some of that ignorance by considering data on false convictions in a small but important subset of criminal cases about which we have unusually detailed information: death sentences… Based on these comparisons we present a handful of findings on features of the investigations of capital cases, and on background facts about capital defendants, that are modest predictors of false convictions.

Photo credit: ex_libris_gul, Creative Commons License

The extraordinary tale of a possible miscarriage of justice

prisonlockLast week (19 Aug) the New York Times Magazine carried an extraordinary tale of possible false confessions which is well worth checking out before it disappears into the NYT archive.

Joseph Jesse Dick Jr. is currently incarcerated in Keen Mountain Correctional Center for rape and murder. He says he is innocent. Here’s how the author, Alan Berlow, begins his tale:

Even in the upside-down world of wrongful convictions, the extravagant case of Joseph Dick and his supposed partners in crime is in a class of its own… To conclude that Joseph Dick is innocent, you must first believe that the tape-recorded confession he gave to the police was untrue and, second, that three other men who said they committed the brutal crime with Dick also falsely confessed. In addition, you must believe that Dick perjured himself when he helped convict two of those co-defendants by testifying against them at their trials for rape and murder, lied when he named five other accomplices and lied moments before a judge gave him a double life sentence when he apologized to the parents of [the victim], declaring, “I know I shouldn’t have done it; I have got no idea what went through my mind that night, and my soul.”

This is a lot to accept. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this case is that these may be the most logical conclusions to draw. When I met Dick… he told me he had proclaimed to investigators his innocence of any involvement in the crime for more than seven hours. … Dick told me that he finally …[confessed] “to avoid the death penalty.”

… By the time he became a witness for the state, Dick explained, he had convinced himself he was guilty. Police officers, prosecutors and even his own lawyer insisted that he had committed the crime. “They messed up my mind and made me believe something that wasn’t true,” he said.

Photo credit: Still_Burning, Creative Commons License

The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice

I’ve been enjoying the Leonard Lopate Show podcasts recently. Here’s one that might appeal to readers of this blog:

In the 1970s, a serial rapist and murderer strangled seven elderly white women in Columbus, Georgia. In The Big Eddy Club, Vanity Fair’s David Rose explains why he suspects the wrong man is on death row for the crimes.

Link to MP3.

Previous podcast segments of interest this month include:

New issue: Psychology, Crime & Law

journalsVolume 13 issue 2 of Psychology, Crime & Law (April 2007) is now online,  and it’s one of those rare issues where I’ll be reading almost every article.

Follow the link to the publisher’s website for abstracts and access to full text articles.

Contents include:

  • Risk and need assessment in British probation: the contribution of LSI-R – Peter Raynor
  • The influence of sample type, presentation format and strength of evidence on juror simulation research – Ma Eva Martín; Leticia De La Fuente; E. Inmaculada De La Fuente; Juan García
  • The usefulness of measuring spatial opportunity structures for tracking down offenders: A theoretical analysis of geographic offender profiling using simulation studies – Wim Bernasco
  • The roles of interrogation, perception, and individual differences in producing compliant false confessions – J. P. Blair
  • Automation of a screening polygraph test increases accuracy – Charles R. Honts; Susan Amat
  • Heuristics in causal reasoning and their influence on eyewitness testimony – Caroline A. C. Remijn; Hans F. M. Crombag
  • Guilty and innocent suspects’ strategies during police interrogations – Maria Hartwig; Pär Anders Granhag; Leif A. Strömwall

False Confessions on All in the Mind (BBC)

The most recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 Programme All in the Mind (27 Dec) has a segment on false confessions, featuring an interview with one of the most prolific false confession researchers, Gisli Gudjonsson, Professor of Forensic Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. According to the AitM website:

[Gudjonsson’s] recent study looks at the relationship between people who make false confessions (to police, parents and teachers) and their perceptions of their parental rearing practices. His research was done in Iceland in conjunction with colleagues at the University Hospital, Reykjavik, and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology in November 2006.

Gudjonsson explains on the programme that he and his research team found a strong relationship between a perception of parental rejection and lack of warmth and the likelihood of false confession, and he and the presenter Claudia Hammond discuss some of the reasons for this. Fascinating stuff.

You can listen again to the programme before 3 January via this link (click on the ‘listen again’ button).


Gudjonsson’s magnum opus on confessions:

  • Gudjonsson, G.H. (2002). The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: a Handbook. Published by John Wiley & Sons. Available at and Amazon UK

How False Confessions Work

In the wake of the media flurry over John Mark Karr, who recently confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, How Stuff Works has just published new pages on why someone might make a false confession to a crime :

False confessions are relatively common in high-profile criminal cases. For example, more than 200 people confessed to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. For this reason, law enforcement officials typically keep some of the details of high-profile investigations secret. If a confessor can describe these secret details, investigators can be more confident that the confession is true.

Lots of detail and some good links.

See also:

Study suggests blind sequential lineups reduce false positives

In a 26 July press release entitled Study of Year-Long Pilot Project Shows that Key Eyewitness Identification Reforms Are Effective, the Innocence Project highlights a new study in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal which indicates that blind sequential lineups led to fewer false positives than traditional eye-witness ID methods:

Results of a new study published in an academic review show that eyewitness identification reforms advocated by a cross-section of organizations and leaders can help protect innocent people and improve the accuracy of police lineups and other identification procedures. The study is the first to use scientifically valid research techniques to evaluate the eyewitness identification reform in the field – in a “real world” application, rather than an academic setting. […]
According to the Innocence Project, 183 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing, and eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of those wrongful convictions.