Can the science of psychology help prevent wrongful convictions?

Lady Justice
Lady Justice statue in the foyer of the Air Force Judge Advocate General School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
Scott* via Flickr

The judicial system is supposed to work like this: Evidence is presented, testimony is heard and a judge or jury determines a just verdict.

The system doesn't always work as it should. Eyewitness testimony has proved to be flawed, as shown by the frequency with which DNA evidence results in verdicts being overturned. There have been more than 300 wrongful convictions overturned due to DNA testing since 1989, according to The Innocence Project.

Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University, thinks if the courts better understood principles of psychology there would be fewer wrongful convictions resulting from poor decision-making, racial bias, eyewitness errors and false confessions.

In a recent article in Scientific American he argued,

Wouldn't it be better if a systematic approach were available to help prevent wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice in the first place? In fact, there exists such an approach: psychological science. Yet many well-established psychological findings have yet to exert much influence on the legal system, in part because of a resistance to change and in part because of differing traditions. Whereas science tends to question common intuitions regarding human nature, the legal system tends to embrace them. Our thesis is straightforward: psychological research can inform courtroom decision making and help decrease the frequency of flawed verdicts.

Lilienfeld and Steven Drizin, clinical professor of law at Northwestern University and director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, join The Daily Circuit Wednesday, Jan. 30 to discuss psychology and the courts.


From the Lab to The Courtroom (Association of Pyschological Science)

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