Psychology in the Courtroom: Four recent articles of interest

A state commission in California as just proposed some changes in the use of eyewitness identification in court, reports the LA Times (14 April). The commission cited problems,

[…] particularly with cross-racial identifications, that have led to exonerations of prisoners. […] In addition, a study published last year by researchers at the University of Michigan Law School found that mistaken eyewitness identification was involved in 88% of wrongful rape and sexual assault convictions. A disproportionate number of the rape exonerations involved white victims misidentifying black suspects, the Michigan study said, suggesting that “the risk of error is greater in cross-racial identifications.”

From Language Log, 11 ApriL, a commentary by Roger Shuy on Videotaping Interrogations, picking up on a NYT article on how the Detroit police now plan to videotape interrogations of all suspects in crimes that carry a penalty of life in prison.

Notably unmentioned in the Times’ article about Detroit’s new decision is that doesn’t describe exactly how much of the interrogation the police department actually plans to tape record. Obviously, defense lawyers want the entire interrogation taped, not just the final confession part. Some police departments say that it costs too much to videotape everything, opting for recapitulations instead. I’ve worked on cases in which, after hours of untaped questionning, the police produced a five minute videotape of the suspect admitting that he had committed the crime. We can never know what was said leading up to such confessions or whether it was coercive or intimidating.

See also:

In jury decision making, diversity improves group decision making in unexpected ways, proclaims a Tufts University press release (9 April), highlighting an about-to-be-published study by Tufts researchers:

In a study involving 200 participants on 29 mock juries, panels of whites and blacks performed better than all-white groups by a number of measures. “Such diverse juries deliberated longer, raised more facts about the case, and conducted broader and more wide-ranging deliberations,” said Sommers. “They also made fewer factual errors in discussing evidence and when errors did occur, those errors were more likely to be corrected during the discussion.” The study is published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The article it doesn’t appear to be online yet, but keep an eye on the home page of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology here or here.

Finally, a new study by Neal Roese and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign finds that not all computer animations in court are perceived as equal (U of I press release, 10 April):

A courtroom jury views a computer animation of a vehicle accident or heinous crime. Does it help bring a conviction or acquittal? With no clear standards for animations that re-create incidents, the verdict is still out, and, for now, it may depend on which side created the simulation, researchers say.

[…] “Many lawyers assume that computer video animations help clarify the evidence, and, therefore, help jury decisions to be fairer and more closely grounded in the facts,” said Neal J. Roese, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Our findings indicate instead that a computer animation introduces its own additional bias, making people more punitive and more likely to hand out harsh penalties.”

Reference: The Propensity Effect – When Foresight Trumps Hindsight. Neal J. Roese, Florian Fessel, Amy Summerville, Justin Kruger, and Michael A. Dilich. Psychological Science 17(4), April 2006

One thought on “Psychology in the Courtroom: Four recent articles of interest”

  1. It seems to me that more and more, across the globe, truth is less important than hitting conviction targets. We the public believe (for the most part) that the police and judiciary are there for our protection and that we are ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

    Yet time after time cases come to light where terrible miscarriages of justice are perpetrated because of the psychological aspects of human beings rather than a reliance on good solid evidence.

    It would appear that a confident and assertive lawyer who presents circumstances (which can be interpreted several ways) as irrefutable facts which have only one interpretation are most likely to win – regardless of truth!

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