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Archive for the ‘Forensic evidence’ Category

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently released a report on racial and ethnic differences in homicides of adult women. After you read this, you will want to be very careful out there! As it happens, homicide is one of the leading causes of death for women in the US who are age 44 or younger. Whether you are more likely to be murdered varies with your race and/or ethnicity. However, one thing does not vary—over half of female victims (where circumstances were known) were killed by “a current or former male intimate partner”. The CDC calls this “intimate partner violence” or IPV.

Here are some of the scary and yet evidence-based facts related to women being murdered through IPV, in data collected between 2003 and 2014.

Common events prior to IPV related homicides were “arguments [29.7%] and jealousy [12%]”. Arguments and jealousy preceding murder were most common among Hispanic victims than among non-Hispanic Black and White victims.

1 in 10 victims of IPV related homicide had experienced violence in the month prior to their death. Most in IPV related homicides were killed by either a current partner (79.2%) or a former intimate partner (14.3%).

Adult female homicide victims (between 2003 and 2014) ranged in age from 18 to 100 (yes, you read that correctly. 100). One third of female homicide victims were between 18 and 29 years old and the largest segment of victims had never married or were single at the time of death. About 15% of women victims who were of reproductive age (18-44 years as defined by the CDC) were either pregnant or less than 6 weeks postpartum.

Non-Hispanic Black women had the highest rate of death due to homicide, while non-Hispanic White women and Asian/Pacific Islander women had the lowest.

One-third of the victims had attended some college or more.

Firearms were used in almost 54% of female homicides. Other methods of killing included sharp instrument (19.8%), hanging, suffocation or strangulation (10.5%), and blunt instrument (7.9%).

To illustrate the heightened emotion and fear before women are killed, the CDC report tells us that over half (54.5%) of these homicides occurred during what is call “another crime in progress”. In these cases, the women were murdered following assault (45.6%), rape and sexual assault (11.1%), and burglary (9.9%).

The statement the CDC uses to begin their Discussion section is obvious and yet jarring.

“Homicide is the most severe health outcome of violence against women.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this data can be used to demonstrate that violence against women often has lethal consequences, and it is often the culmination of domestic violence. These data illustrate the cold reality behind the tendency for homicide investigators to suspect the spouse or intimate partner when women are killed.

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Perhaps we should lower our standards on what sources are good for an entire blog post as these combination posts seem to increasingly inhabit our blog. We simply run across a lot of things that we want you to know about but we don’t want to repeat what you can find elsewhere. So, sit back and click some links and see some of the stuff we thought too interesting to pass up!

Cross-examining a psychiatrist or a psychologist (aka shrinks)

Much has been written on the intricacies of cross-examining mental health professionals and a quick internet search will give you more than a million things to read. Rather than taking all that time, we’ll just send you to the ABA Journal and their brief article on how to be effective while cross-examining  these witnesses. We’ll help convince you to visit the article by sharing just a few of their recommendations: confine your questions to their reports, determine whether they have taken a complete patient history to support their eventual diagnosis, verify entries (even degrees) on their resumés, and much, much more.

If you want more, here is a resource-rich webpage on deposition and cross-examination questions for mental health experts. Finally, having a trial consultant with a background in expert testimony and psychological testing can also be very helpful.

Digital gaps between urban and rural America

We’ve done research in Los Angeles and witness preparation in France a number of times recently but you will often find us in rural areas, in places the internet forgot, and in areas the people are so charming and gracious you may just want to stay. One of our favorite stories about rural pretrial research is this one which involved multiple high-tech company clients who were stunned at the dearth of technological savvy among the mock jurors only a few years ago:

Other very rural venues have shown us the extent to which the internet has passed by some Americans completely. At one site, of 36 mock jurors, only 4 had internet access. At another, of 48 jurors, only 11 had ‘smart phones’ while a majority didn’t understand the question. Most had “not heard of” Amazon.com’s website. One called a major social networking site, “the devil’s work” and others nodded somberly.

While we were taken aback during that research, a new Pew Research report tells us the urban/rural digital gap still remains. It is less pronounced than it once was, but the divide remains. You will want to read this report—even if you don’t do much rural work. It’s a way to keep track of just how different urban and rural jurors are and how access to information (as well as the value placed on that access) varies dramatically between city and rural residents.

Empathy gaps in the brain of the psychopath

We’ve written before about the psychopath (quite a lot, actually) but here is another review of the many ways the brain of the psychopath differs. The writeup summarizes the work of a team of researchers from Harvard who studied inmates in two Wisconsin medium-security prisons. These researchers believe that psychopathy reflects a “brain wiring dysfunction”. Alas for some of us, the researchers say this (and we wonder just how convincing it would be to jurors who like their food and drink perhaps a little too much):

“The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers.”

Gender pay gaps—it’s worse than you may think for women of color

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has released a new report that is pretty much certain to make you want to overeat M&Ms or ice cream (but that could just be me). In one of more depressing and heavily hyper-linked summaries of the gender pay gap—they include this discouraging information on the realities for women of color.

“Hispanic women will have to wait until 2248 and Black women will wait until 2124 for equal pay.”

We won’t make you do the math. That is 232 years for Hispanic women and 108 years for black women. That’s beyond ridiculous. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Read this report and be informed. Then do something about it.

The Police and Law Enforcement (PLE) Scale

This is a new 8-question scale meant to document Black men’s perception of bias and discrimination directed toward them by members of the police force. Here is a bit of what the researchers say about their reasons for developing the measure:

The researchers note that most scientific literature on the subject typically includes the police’s point of view of the experience and rarely that of the person who had the interaction with the police. The new Police and Law Enforcement Scale can help to balance out the record so that it includes the perspective of individuals who have interactions with police.

“There is a substantial gap between what you hear from black men regarding their experiences with law enforcement officials during their lives and what is in the scientific literature,” said Devin English, a psychology Ph.D. student at the George Washington University and lead author of the study. “We see our study as helping to document what black men have been experiencing for centuries in the United States.”

This measure is meant to assess the level of institutionalized racism experienced by community members and is also seen as a step to improve public health (since discrimination is known to decrease physical as well as emotional well-being. The researchers are hopeful the scale can improve dialogue across the US on racial discrimination in policing.

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Of course it isn’t a surprise that they are gravely disturbed, but who knew it was neuropsychological?  This is an article from researchers at Northwestern University and looks very specifically at similarities and differences in the neuropsychological test scores of those who killed only children and those who killed some adults as well as children.

The researchers start by telling us that the murder of a child is among the “rarest and least understood categories of homicide”. It is a fairly gruesome inquiry that the researchers say is made all the more necessary with media coverage that has mostly focused on women who kill their children (often in an intense post-partum psychosis). The researchers say that the homicide of children occurs in many contexts and not all of those contexts include mental illness. They carefully review the literature on child homicide and even discuss the differences between mothers and fathers who kill their children. We are going to focus here on the neuropsychological differences between those that kill only children and those who kill adults as well as one or more children.

We also note that this is a small sample of 33 people (27 men and 6 women) convicted of 1st degree murder in three states (i.e., Illinois, Missouri, Indiana) who were referred for forensic neuropsychological evaluations to assess fitness to stand trial, criminal responsibility, or sentencing. Of this small group, the average age was 32 years, 48.5% were Black, 36.4% were Caucasian, and 12.1% were Hispanic while 3.0% were described as “other” in terms of race/ethnicity. The researchers said those convicted murderers who had killed adults as well as children were comparable to what is known of other murderers. However, when they looked at those convicted murderers who had killed children only, a different pattern emerged.

Here is what they report on those murderers who killed only children:

The murders are less likely to be premeditated and the murderer is less likely to have traits associated with premeditation (e.g., a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and/or substance abuse).

Child murderers were more likely to kill with their hands—as by drowning or beating.

Child murderers were more likely to score lower on measures of language and verbal memory (which the researchers link to poor conflict mediation skills).

The researchers suggest that, since those who kill children only, seem to have deficits (intellectual and interpersonal)—it may be useful to identify them and offer training in problem solving and communication skills. They suggest it may take more organization than the “child only” murderers have to kill multiple victims who are both adults and children.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the horror related to a murder of this sort makes it difficult for jurors to consider mitigating circumstances. If these researchers are accurate, these are murderers who used their hands to kill innocent children—very personal and inescapably deliberate— and the act will likely be seen as heinous and unforgivable. Those who kill or abuse children are not viewed positively in the prison environment and there is no reason to believe jurors are going to view them more positively either. Jurors will likely be disgusted by the defendant’s behavior but may also respond well to the idea of the defendant receiving rehabilitative services (such as problem-solving and communication training, anger management, and more) so that there is less likelihood of a similar situation arising in the future. This sort of research can potentially explain why something horrible happened and offer jurors information on rehabilitation strategies that will make history less likely to repeat itself.

Azores-Gococo, N., Brook, M., Teralandur, S., & Hanlon, R. (2017). Killing A Child. Criminal Justice and Behavior. DOI: 10.1177/0093854817699437

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When litigation cases rely on science or highly technical information, it is critical to help jurors understand the information underlying the case at a level that makes sense to them. If they do not understand your “science”, they will simply guess which party to vote for or “follow the crowd”. Here’s an example of what happened when scientists “followed the crowd” to see what fields of science were seen as most precise (and therefore reliable).

You can see from the graphic illustrating this post that too many people are watching CSI shows on TV. When forensic science is more “certain” than nanotechnology or aerospace engineering, and even mechanical physics—we have a problem! The authors actually agree with us in this press release:

“The map shows that perceptions held by the public may not reflect the reality of scientific study,” Broomell said. “For example, psychology is perceived as the least precise while forensics is perceived as the most precise. However, forensics is plagued by many of the same uncertainties as psychology that involve predicting human behavior with limited evidence.”

Be that as it may, when these researchers from Carnegie Mellon set out to see which branches of science the public feels most certain about—that is what they found. It is part and parcel of the frustration we often see from our attorney-clients when what they have presented is not what our mock jurors have retained.

We’ve also talked about the newer findings of political polarization coloring reactions to almost everything. The researchers also found political differences in the evaluation of whole fields of science here (again quoting the press release from Carnegie Mellon).

While political affiliations are not the only factor motivating how science is perceived, the researchers did find that sciences that potentially conflict with a person’s ideology are judged as being more uncertain. “Our political atmosphere is changing. Alternative facts and contradicting narratives affect and heighten uncertainty. Nevertheless, we must continue scientific research. This means we must find a way to engage uncertainty in a way that speaks to the public’s concerns,” Broomell said.

In other words, people believe what they choose to believe and you can’t predict how they will engage or not engage. And finally, they also make this comment which we are hearing more and more in the mass media—essentially, the responses these participants gave have no apparent relation to facts.

However, our results also suggest that evaluations of specific research results by the general public (such as those produced by climate change, or the link between autism and vaccination) may not be strongly influenced by accurate information about the scientific research field that produced the results.

This is an area of lament from many who deal in data and facts. We are living in a post-expert world (and some would say post-truth and post-facts). So what are you to do?

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this study tells us how important it is to make scientific research relevant and common-sense (or even counter-intuitive) to your jurors. They need to understand it and have it make sense to them or be allowed to revel in the counter-intuitive nature of the findings.

Feeling comfortable with the “science” (whatever it may be) is a much better way to ensure consistency from your jurors than relying on the chart illustrating this post to predict how listeners will react to the particular science upon which your case relies.

Broomell, S., & Kane, P. (2017). Public perception and communication of scientific uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146 (2), 286-304 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000260

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Those of us who’ve been around for a while have heard this repeatedly. But, lest you think times are changing, here’s some sobering data from a March, 2017 report co-edited by a Michigan State University College of Law Professor.

From the beginning, this is a disturbing report. Here’s how it starts:

African-Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in “group exonerations”.

The report focuses on murder, sexual assault and drug crimes. To stay brief, we will give you highlights only of the murder statistics for Black defendants. Once you see those, we think you will want to review the whole of this very recent document.

Here are the statistics on Black defendants accused of murder.

Judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.

African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.

The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.

In addition, on average black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer.

Many of the convictions of African-American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism.

If you represent Black defendants, these are realities you know. The report is not that long and you can read it and see the consistency of how having black skin gives you less of a shot at justice. One day, we’d like to see the report telling us that courtrooms are color blind, but we are nowhere near that goal.

Samuel R. Gross, Maurice Possley, & Klara Stephens (2017). Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States. UC Irvine: National Registry of Exonerations. 

Available here.

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