1. Study finds no link between watching TV crime shows and ability to conceal crime

    January 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Universität Mainz press release:

    Does watching the work of fictional forensic investigators on TV influence viewers? There is a belief that this is the case and that the consequences of people watching shows such as the American crime drama television series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” are filtering through into real life, a phenomenon that has been called the CSI effect. In the worst case, it is feared, potential criminals will learn how to better conceal a crime from these shows. In addition, concerns have been expressed that members of U.S. juries may now have excessive expectations regarding the evidence and as a result are more likely to acquit the accused. A team of psychologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz working under Professor Heiko Hecht have now sounded the all-clear — at least in one respect. In an experimental study, the German researchers have been able to find no evidence of a correlation between watching forensic science TV shows and the ability to get away with committing a crime. This is the first study to look at the question of whether criminals could profit from viewing dramas of this sort.

    CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a popular U.S. TV series which first hit the small screen in its home country in 2000. It focuses on the characters and the work of a team of forensic crime scene investigators. The effect named for this series was soon applied to any repercussions that it was held such widely-viewed crime shows had with regard to the general public — including criminals, the police, and potential students of forensic medicine. “Over many years, it was presumed that certain links in this regard exist, although there were no appropriate studies to prove this,” said Dr. Andreas Baranowski. He and his colleagues at Mainz University have now undertaken four separate investigations of related claims with the aim of obtaining the most reliable possible findings.

    As a first step, the psychologists took a look at statistics from the databases of the FBI and its German equivalent, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), and compared the crime detection rates during the years preceding the launch of the CSI series with the subsequent rates. Then they asked 24 convicted criminals in prisons for their opinions on series such as CSI and whether they thought such shows could help when it came to escaping prosecution. Thirdly, the researchers put together a complex experimental design to find out whether viewers of TV shows like CSI would, as trial subjects, actually be better equipped to erase the traces of an, in this case, mock crime. Baranowski and his colleagues completed their series of trials in the form of a fourth test, in which a crime was re-enacted with the help of a doll’s house.

    No CSI learning effect for criminals

    On the whole, the researchers did not find any connection between watching forensic dramas and the ability to successfully avoid detection after committing a crime. However, the male subjects in the fourth part of the experiment performed better than female subjects, and younger subjects better than older subjects while more highly educated subjects did better than less well educated study subjects. Study subjects working in technical professions, primarily men, appear to have certain advantages when it comes to concealing crimes.

    Baranowski pointed out it had already been postulated in the past that something like the CSI effect could exist. Starting with Sherlock Holmes and continuing as police procedurals, such as Quincy and Law & Order, appeared on TV, warning voices made themselves heard that the wrong kind of people could benefit from the insights provided. “Every time something new emerges there are people who focus in one aspect and without a full and proper consideration sense possible risks and thus call for bans.” The findings in this context can be said to pour cold water on attitudes like this. “We can now dispel certain of the myths that have been coursing through the media and other publications for the past 20 years because we are able to state with relative certainty that people who watch CSI are no better at covering their tracks than other people.”

    Dr. Andreas Baranowski supervised the study, “The CSI-education effect: Do potential criminals benefit from forensic TV series?,” at the Division of General Experimental Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and works as a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Giessen University.

  2. Sleep may influence an eyewitness’s ability to identify guilty person

    September 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Sleep may influence an eyewitness’s ability to correctly pick a guilty person out of a police lineup, indicates a study by Michigan State University researchers.

    Published in PLOS ONE, the research found that eyewitnesses to a crime who sleep before being given a lineup are much less likely to pick an innocent person out of a lineup — at least when the perpetrator is not in the lineup.

    Some 70 percent of wrongful convictions in the United States are related to false eyewitness accounts. This study is the first scientific investigation into how sleep affects eyewitness memory of a crime, said lead author Michelle Stepan, a doctoral student in psychology.

    “It’s concerning that more people aren’t making the correct decision during lineups; this suggests our memories are not super accurate and that’s a problem when you’re dealing with the consequences of the criminal justice system,” Stepan said. “Putting someone in jail is a big decision based on somebody’s memory of a crime.”

    Stepan and Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Sleep and Learning Lab, conducted an experiment in which about 200 participants watched a video of a crime (a man planting a bomb on a rooftop) and then, 12 hours later, viewed one of two computer lineups of six similar-looking people. One lineup included the perpetrator; the other lineup did not.

    Some participants watched the crime video in the morning and viewed a lineup that night, with no sleep in between. Others watched the crime video at night and viewed a lineup the next morning, after sleeping.

    When the perpetrator was not in the lineup, participants who had slept identified an innocent person 42 percent of the time — compared to 66 percent for participants who had not slept.

    “This is the most interesting finding of the study — that individuals are less likely to choose an innocent suspect after a period of sleep when the perpetrator is absent from the lineup,” Fenn said. This is relevant, she added, because false convictions too often stem from an incorrect eyewitness identification of a suspect who did not commit the crime.

    When the perpetrator was in the lineup, there was essentially no difference between the sleep and no-sleep groups’ ability to choose the guilty man. Both groups correctly identified the perpetrator about 50 percent of the time.

    “In other words,” Fenn said, “sleep may not help you get the right guy, but it may help you keep an innocent individual out of jail.”

    The results could reflect both changes in memory strength and decision-making strategies after sleep.

    The researchers believe participants who slept were more likely to use an “absolute strategy,” in which they compare each person in the lineup to their memory of the suspect, while participants who didn’t sleep were more likely to use a “relative strategy,” in which they compare the people in the lineup to each other to determine who most resembles the perpetrator relative to the others.

    Using a relative strategy is believed to increase false identifications relative to an absolute strategy in perpetrator-absent lineups, Stepan said.

    “These findings tell us that sleep likely impacts memory processes but that it might also impact how people search through a lineup, and those search strategies might be a critical factor when the perpetrator is not in the lineup,” she said.

    Fenn noted that the key findings of the study have since been replicated.

    The MSU team is conducting research that further explores how sleep may directly or indirectly affect eyewitness memory.

  3. Study suggests eyewitness recollection easily distorted by the views of others

    July 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Huddersfield press release:

    It is human nature to give added credence to the views of family and friends. But this could lead to inaccurate eyewitness statements in court cases and therefore potential miscarriages of justice, argues a University of Huddersfield lecturer, who is calling on police and the courts to take this factor into account.

    Dara Mojtahedi — who lectures in forensic psychology — has been carrying out innovative research into the reliability of eyewitness statements and has been disseminating his findings at conferences and during talks with police.

    During an earlier phase of research he screened footage of an actual violent incident to groups of “witnesses” — specially recruited volunteers. Some of them were allowed to confer, and it was found that many people’s recollection of what they saw was readily distorted by comments from others, including dummy eyewitnesses who purposely suggested that the wrong man had started the fight.

    This resulted in many inaccurate and misleading statements from people susceptible to being influenced by others.

    Now Dara has developed the project, in order to discover the extent of what he describes as “co-witness familiarity on statement similarity.”

    He recruited 420 participants. They were placed in groups that included relations or people who had known each other for at least three months. They then watched the fight footage and held a discussion before giving individual statements privately. It was found that the post-event discussions significantly increased the level of statement similarity when the co-witnesses had a pre-existing relationship.

    One reason the findings are important is that studies have shown that 86 per cent of eyewitnesses are known to each other, meaning there is enormous scope for misleading statements to be made.

    As a psychologist, Dara Mojtahedi — who is completing his PhD on eyewitness reliability — was unsurprised by the findings of his latest experiment.

    “When we encounter information from a stranger, we have no background knowledge of them to help us decide on whether they are more likely to be correct than we are. But with friends and family members, we have known them for a long time and it is a natural process that when we like someone we spend less time questioning and criticising their reliability and accuracy.”

    Dara has presented his research at academic events, such as the recent Forensic Psychology in Canada Conference, held in Ottawa, and at the British Psychological Society in Bristol. Also, he is supervising Master’s students who are writing dissertations in the subject area.

    But he is particularly determined that his findings about eyewitness reliability and especially co-witness familiarity should make an impact on police investigation and court procedures.

    “A big question that police officers, lawyers and indeed jurors should be asking is, did you witness this incident with friends or did you witness it with strangers?” said Dara.

    He has recently presented his work to West Yorkshire Police and his ideas were well-received. “This research is really aimed at officers and at jurors rather than an academic audience,” he said.

  4. Study suggests eyewitness confidence may predict accuracy of identifications

    April 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Many individuals have been falsely accused of a crime based, at least in part, on confident eyewitness identifications, a fact that has bred distrust of eyewitness confidence in the U.S. legal system. But a new report challenges the perception that eyewitness memory is inherently fallible, finding that eyewitness confidence can reliably indicate the accuracy of an identification made under certain, “pristine” conditions.

    Psychological scientists John T. Wixted (University of California, San Diego) and Gary L. Wells (Iowa State University), leading researchers in the field of eyewitness memory, joined forces in authoring the report, taking an in-depth look at the available science on eyewitness identifications. Based on their comprehensive analysis, Wixted and Wells conclude that recent advancements in identification procedures warrant reconsideration of the role that eyewitness confidence can play in the legal system.

    “The purpose of our article is to explain why a blanket disregard for eyewitness confidence is not only at odds with what has been learned in recent years but can also contribute to both the wrongful conviction of innocent suspects and the unwarranted removal from suspicion of a guilty suspect,” the researchers write.

    The report is accompanied by commentaries from several notable experts, including Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and renowned memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine. The report and commentaries are published together in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI), a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    The one factor that matters most in interpreting an eyewitness statement of confidence is timing, Wixted and Wells find. Confidence is only informative at the time that eyewitnesses first make their identification, before they are exposed to various influences that can compromise memory. This is often where courts have erred, the PSPI authors note, allowing witnesses to make confidence statements “at pretrial hearings or at trial, well after the witness might have undergone serious confidence inflation from repeated identifications, coaching, confirmatory feedback, and so on.”

    In addition to timing, accumulated evidence suggests several other procedures that can enhance the reliability of eyewitness identifications. Wixted and Wells provide five recommendations for ensuring these “pristine conditions,” such as including only one suspect in a lineup and ensuring that the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is.

    Data suggest that when these pristine conditions are followed, a high-confidence identification implies a high-accuracy identification. When eyewitnesses express low confidence in their identifications, however, the conditions do not matter — low confidence always signifies a high risk of error.

    “Instead of being ignored, an initial expression of low confidence should take center stage — overshadowing all other considerations — when a jury’s goal is to evaluate the reliability of a suspect ID,” Wixted and Wells explain.

    Jurisdictions in the United States are increasingly adopting these kinds of evidence-based eyewitness identification procedures, and yet improvements remain needed. In their commentary, Loftus and co-author Rachel Greenspan (University of California, Irvine) report findings showing that some of the pristine conditions are commonly used by US law enforcement agencies, while others are not. This reality raises the question of what conclusions can be drawn in the many instances when conditions are not pristine.

    To this point, commentary authors Laura Mickes (Royal Holloway, University of London), Steven E. Clark (University of California, Riverside), and Scott D. Gronlund (University of Oklahoma) present evidence from Wixted and Wells’s analyses showing that confidence can indicate accuracy even when the identification conditions are not pristine — thus, for a jury assessing the accuracy of an identification, knowing how confident the eyewitness was may be more useful than knowing whether she made the identification under pristine conditions.

    With these issues in mind, Loftus and Greenspan note that “it is important to emphasize that Wixted and Wells have called to our attention important new findings, significant reanalyses of earlier findings, and provoked a hugely important societal conversation.”

    As Judge Davis concludes, “one can be hopeful that this latest contribution to the ever growing literature will further the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system: to assure, as much as humanly possible, the exoneration of the innocent, while achieving, fairly and transparently, the conviction of the guilty.”

  5. Rethinking the use of warnings with transcript and video evidence in trials

    March 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    New research from the University of Liverpool examining the impact multiple forms of evidence has on juror perceptions during criminal trials has found the use of video material could be detrimental without the use of a judicial warning.

    Currently during criminal trials transcripts of audio recordings played during a trial may be provided to the jury to help them understand what is said in the recording.

    The decision to furnish jurors with copies of a transcript to assist them in listening to the audio recording is subject to the sound discretion of the trial judge.

    Judicial warnings

    In one case, according to the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, there had been no exceptional circumstances that justified a jury retiring with a transcript of the complainant’s interview.

    Research, led by Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, examined the impact multiple evidence forms and use of a judicial warning has on juror evaluations of a witness.

    Judicial warnings focus juror attention on placing disproportionate weight on the evidence as opposed to their general impression of it.

    Perceptions of witness

    As part of the study sixty jury eligible adult participants were recruited from the general population, and across a range of occupations. The overall sample consisted of 20 males and 40 females aged between 18 and 55 years.

    They were presented with witness evidence in transcript, video, or transcript plus video format. Half the participants in each condition received the warning.

    All mock jurors completed a questionnaire which assessed perceptions of witness and task.

    Outcomes showed that transcript plus video evidence, when accompanied by a warning, did impact on mock jurors’ global assessments of the witness. The warning reduced ratings of witness reliability and how satisfactory the witness was deemed to be. The warning also made the task less clear for jurors and, in the video condition alone, led to higher ratings of how satisfactory and reliable the witness was.

    Findings support the provision of a judicial warning to jurors when video material is used and show some initial support for judiciary opposition to the provision of an additional transcript only when jurors are asked to make the more usual global witness assessments.

    The study has been published in The Journal of Psychology.

    Warnings needed in some circumstances

    Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft, said: “The study showed mock jurors’ global assessments of a witness were significantly affected by the presentation of transcript + video evidence in conjunction with a judicial warning.

    “The findings also emphasize the importance of providing jurors with a warning should video evidence be presented alone.”

    “Finally, the judiciary might develop warnings to encourage jurors to consider how satisfactory and/or reliable they find witnesses.”

  6. Study reveals how eyewitness testimonies can go wrong

    March 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Florida Atlantic University press release:

    Eyewitnesses identify more than 75,000 suspects each year in the United States and their testimonies are one of the most compelling and powerful forms of evidence for a jury. But, it’s not foolproof — just ask the 242 individuals who were mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses and served years in prison for crimes they did not commit until they were exonerated thanks to the introduction of DNA testing.

    Research by psychologists at Florida Atlantic University gives new meaning to the notion of “guilt by association” and aims to test how memory in humans as well as police use of mugshots and subtle innuendo can contaminate eyewitness testimonies. Using a laboratory setting, they investigated the phenomenon of unconscious transference — when an eyewitness misidentifies a familiar but innocent person in a mugshot or lineup — and recently published their results in the journal Memory & Cognition. Police departments currently use a number of methods to identify the culprit of a crime, including individual mugshots, an array of mugshots, composite sketches and lineups. Often, eyewitnesses are exposed to one or more of these procedures coupled with feedback from law enforcement.

    “There are a number of ways that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated with misleading information and that’s why you have to treat memory like other forms of forensic evidence,” said Alan Kersten, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “If you handle it right you can often get useful information from it.”

    Kersten and collaborator Julie Earles, Ph.D., co-author and a professor of psychology in FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, were looking for answers to a key question involving eyewitness testimonies and mugshots: “Does presenting a picture along with a question like ‘is this the person who did it?’ create an association between those two things that could then cause an eyewitness to later falsely remember seeing that person doing that action?”

    For the study, participants were broken into two age groups: a median age of around 19 years old and a median age of around 71 years old. Each participant was shown a series of snippet videos of actors doing simple actions and were then instructed to remember which person had performed each task. The researchers created 84 mugshots from these videos as well as a series of various scenarios of events. For each trial, study participants were shown two mugshots: one depicting an actor from one of the videos and the other depicting a new, random actor. Each mugshot was accompanied by a question about a particular action such as “which of these people did you see watering a plant?” After completing the mugshot trials, older adults and half of the younger adults were tested immediately for their recognition of the events they had seen, whereas the other younger adults returned about three weeks later.

    Results from the study confirm what the researchers have long suspected — viewing a mugshot along with a question like “is this the person who did it?” can lead to the creation of a specific association between the person and the queried action.

    They found that both younger and older participants were more likely to falsely recognize the test events if the actors appearing in those events also had appeared in the mugshots. However, the mechanisms underlying this effect were different for younger and older adults. With older adults, mugshot viewing led them to experience a feeling of familiarity when they saw the pictured actor performing a familiar action from one of the videos, even if it was a different action than the one that was suggested when they viewed the actor’s mugshot. This suggests that older adults recognized the familiar person but could not recall the source or reason for that familiarity. Younger adults, on the other hand, were more likely to falsely recognize a suspect if a mugshot of the actor was accompanied by a question about the action that the actor was now seen performing. This finding suggests that the young adults formed a specific association between the pictured actor and the queried action, causing them to later falsely recollect having seen that actor perform that action.

    “False recollection is really troubling from a legal perspective because this type of memory leads an eyewitness to put a face to a context of a crime scene, incorrectly linking the two together and leading to the conclusion that this person committed the crime,” said Earles. “And to complicate matters even more, since it can take years for a case to appear before a jury, memory also can be altered with the passage of time.”

    Kersten and Earles caution that this type of memory leads to a high level of confidence, especially in younger eyewitnesses, because they are convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they saw the suspect committing the crime.

    “Eyewitnesses remember the crime itself and remember seeing a familiar person before but they may incorrectly visualize these two pieces of information together,” said Kersten. “Because they are able to place the familiar person in the context of the crime scene, this may lead them to confidently assert that they saw the person commit the crime.”