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What is the information that one can gather from psychological research regarding conviction of the innocent? Brian L. Cutler has edited a book that offers a comprehensive set of answers to this question. Its relevance cannot be discounted. In the laboratory, false alarm responses in recollection and recognition may be either a disturbance (if researchers' focus is correct performance) or an interesting phenomenon worthy of serious scientific investigation (see false memory research), all without much consequence for participants. In fact, customarily, participants receive some form of compensation for their involvement (e.g., money or extra credits for a course in which they are enrolled) and then return to their ordinary lives, usually without much thought about the research to which they contributed. In contrast, in a court of law, the consequences of a false alarm are dire for defendants, who may be convicted of a crime they did not commit, and for witnesses who may face the guilt and shame of having sent an innocent person to prison.
The text entitled Conviction of the innocent: Lessons from psychological research is a stimulating read for a diverse audience, from those whose primary line of work or interest rests in the justice system to those for whom application of psychological knowledge to real-life settings remains the main pursuit. The writing is so transparent and information-laden that the target audience can include readers of different types and levels of expertise, from neophytes to experts in a verity of fields, including law and social sciences. The text is organized into sections that offer meticulous and comprehensive accounts of the different roles played by potential culprits, witnesses, investigators, and evaluators (i.e., jurors and judges) in assembling and assessing 'evidence' that may lead to the verdict of 'guilty' vs. 'not-guilty' in a court of law. At the heart of evidence summarized in the text is a superb illustration of the workings of applied research whereby current theoretical knowledge of human mind functioning is tested in real-life or simulated settings, and the practical knowledge acquired from such a testing is used to shape theoretical knowledge, in a never-ending cycle of adjusting research questions and predictions.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of the literature review on the likelihood of false convictions is the lag between research findings on one side and the law and its applications by the justice system on the other. Discrepancies between the two domains are mostly responsible for flaws exhibited by the current justice system, which, regretfully, encompass all of its three acknowledged pursuits (legislative, adjudication, and corrections). Flaws of different magnitude and consequences are so staggering that one may ask whether the conviction of actual guilty parties is merely an accident in a system where subjectivity reigns.
The text discusses a variety of errors that can occur along the entire sequence of events that comprise the administration of justice, from the start of an investigation where evidence is collected to the final moments where 'evidence' is presented, evaluated, and used to make a decision on the guilt or innocence of an alleged perpetrator. Some errors (e.g., biased collection of physical evidence) may be more difficult (if not impossible) to rectify than others (e.g., faulty gathering of eyewitness testimony), but they all have something to do with the functioning of a human mind/brain that optimizes processing of information at the expense of exactitude. One missing part of the book, and perhaps topic for a segue, is a detailed examination of the relationship between some of the properties of such a mind/brain and their impact on the workings of the justice system. Of particular interest is the notion of a two-track mind, whereby largely automatic, fast, unconscious operations, which stem from evolutionary ancient structures of the human brain, are distinguished from conscious, slower, and person-controlled operations, which stem from more recent structures. Sadly, most of the assumptions upon which the justice system relies for evidence collection, organization, assessment, and decision making seem to imply a human mind whose thought and behavior are the expression of the latter type of operations.
Although most of the evidence illustrated in Conviction of the innocent: Lessons from psychological research may be known to the expert reader, the integration of different research findings and their organization according to the role played by different parties (e.g., investigators, witnesses, potential culprits, and final decision makers) make all evidence and its implications easier to understand. The quality of scientific evidence collected is also to be commended. While the text contains solid scientific information that can make even the most ardent supporter of the current justice system question the tenets and applications of such a system, anecdotal information remains an essential ingredient of most chapters. Anecdotes flavor narratives and bring to the forefront human faces that otherwise might have remained unknown to the reader, especially when the narratives' main focus is identifying trends across ever-expanding groups of research participants. Mostly because of limited research in the area of life after a wrongful conviction is overturned, the very last chapter takes a predominately anecdotal approach. The chapter, devoted to events that surround individuals whose innocence has been recognized after a considerable amount of time spent in prison, is not only heartbreaking, but also a strong call for action to rectify a second type of injustice perpetrated on the innocent. Namely, it is the injustice that stems from not helping individuals in this predicament to rebuild their lives outside the penitentiary. Clearly, aphorisms such as 'take the high road', 'move on', are moot if not supported by a justice system that recognizes the healing power of remedies.
In sum, if you believe in the golden rule that 'one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself', this read will be enlightening. If your belief system is guided by reason and reliant on unbiased evidence, then this read will also serve as a tool to understand and counteract injustice in the making and administration of the law.
© 2011 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York