The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Science & Skepticism Triumph in the New Jersey Courts

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 29, 2011

It’s not often spoken of, but I think perhaps one of the most critical reasons why it is that we need to have a populace that is well educated in basic critical thinking and reasoning skills can be summed up in how our court system works.  In the United States, many trials in court are decided by juries, which are composed of everyday folk like you and me.  And, as is sometimes the case, juries that are tasked with making major decisions – such as in murder cases – can all-too-often fall victim to sloppy thinking.  And, unfortunately, sometimes this sloppy thinking is actively encouraged by rules set by the courts themselves!

However, recently there as a welcome challenge to the status quo: the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new guidelines and regulations for how to take into account the validity of eyewitness testimony and the fallibility of human memory regarding identification.  Read the following article from The Innocence Project for more information…

New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision Mandating Major Changes in the Way Courts Handle Identification Procedures

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries.  The new changes, designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions by taking into account more than 30 years of scientific research on eyewitness identification and memory, require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification. …

… The court’s decision requires judges to more thoroughly scrutinize the police identification procedures and many other variables that affect an eyewitness identification. The court noted that this more extensive scrutiny will require enhanced jury instructions on factors that increase the risk of misidentification. These factors include:

• Whether the lineup procedure was administered “double blind,” meaning that the officer who administers the lineup is unaware who the suspect is and the witness is told that the officer doesn’t know.
• Whether the witness was told that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they need not make a choice.
• Whether the police avoided providing the witness with feedback that would cause the witness to believe he or she selected the correct suspect.  Similarly, whether the police recorded the witnesses’ level of confidence at the time of the identification.
• Whether the witness had multiple opportunities to view the same person, which would make it more likely for the witness to choose this person as the suspect.
• Whether the witness was under a high level of stress.
• Whether a weapon was used, especially if the crime was of short duration.
• How much time the witness had to observe the event.
• How far the witness was from the perpetrator and what the lighting conditions were.
• Whether the witness possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification, such as age of the witness and influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Whether the perpetrator possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification.  Was he or she wearing a disguise?  Did the suspect have different facial features at the time of the identification?
• The length of time between the crime and identification.
• Whether the case involved cross-racial identification.

Folks, this is a big deal, because there is a mountain of strongly-supported research which shows just how untrustworthy and malleable memories can be and how this can lead to all manner of mistakes regarding the positive identification of suspects in court cases.  For example, take a look at some of the work done by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus on this subject of the misinformation effect and false memories.

Th main point here that I want to emphasize is that the new Jersey Supreme Court took a huge step in the right direction by relying on the most well-tested science to guide its decision.  And that is important, because science – more than any other human endeavor – has allowed us to collectively sort out the good ideas from the bad ideas regarding how the world works.  And how the world works includes how we, as fallible beings, interact with it and each other.

In closing, I want to emphasize my point about critical thinking in the courts, and specifically in the jury box and deliberation room, by encouraging you to watch one of the best movies ever on the subject: 12 Angry Men.  The original was made in 1957, but it was remade in 1997, and I think either version is excellent viewing.  If you have never seen either version, take some time to check them out on Youtube or rent them, because I can only hope that every jury in the world is as rational as this one…

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2 Responses to “Science & Skepticism Triumph in the New Jersey Courts”

  1. Lynn Murphy said

    Thanks for letting us know about this decision! I’m reassured, though, by the 2006 “Beyond the Ken” study of 1,000 potential jurors by Richard S. Schmechel, Timothy P. O’Toole, Catharine Easterly, and Elizabeth F. Loftus. As a skeptic, I skip the abstract and go straight to the data on p. 211. Yes, almost half think that memory is like a videotape (11b). But ask them specific questions and most show good common sense: confidence is not an indicator of eyewitness reliability; if police confirm an eyewitness’ lineup choice they assume the eyewitness is more confident; if two eyewitnesses pick the same person, it doesn’t mean they’re right, etc.

    “Beyond the Ken” is online at:.

    https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/Schmechel%20Loftus%20Jurimetrics%202006.pdf?uniq=-z3cwuf

  2. Another excellent film addressing this topic is Errol Morris’s extraordinary 1988 documentary _The Thin Blue Line_:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Blue_Line_(film)

    Episode 282 of _This American Life_, “DIY”, presents another sobering case study:

    http://www.ThisAmericanLife.org/radio-archives/episode/282/DIY

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