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Archive for the ‘Witness Preparation’ Category

firesetterThere is a lot of literature on fire-setters but not, apparently, on how psychotic fire-setters differ from those who are not psychotic. As it turns out, there are some significant differences.

Researchers in The Netherlands examined the records of 124 fire-setters (30 psychotic and 94 non-psychotic) sent for pretrial forensic mental health assessments between 2000 and 2010. They were largely male (107 males and 17 females) and on average 32 years old. The researchers compared characteristics in the records and found these differences:

Psychotic fire-setters were older, more often single, more likely to set their fires alone, and more likely to be unemployed. They had a more “extensive and intensive” history of mental health care with higher levels of psychiatric admissions and were more likely to carry diagnoses of psychotic disorders. They had more problems with soft drugs (like cannabis) but showed fewer issues with alcohol. This group set fires for reasons related to their psychosis (e.g., delusions) and were more likely to set fire to their own property. They were often described as “pure fire-setters” (as in, that was all they did of a criminal nature).

Both psychotic and non-psychotic fire-setters were similar in having impulsivity and poor social skills. There were high levels of repeat fire-setting in both groups.

Non-psychotic fire-setters were more likely to have been physically abused as children and tended to set fires out of “anger and revenge or acting out and vandalism”. Non-psychotic fire-setters set fire to the property of others and were more likely to abuse hard drugs and alcohol. They most often set fires along with others and were often intoxicated when fire-setting.

The researchers are quick to point out the limits of their sample and to discuss differences between their findings and the findings in the prior literature. The differences between the two groups seem to be largely related to the mental illness in the psychotic group.

The mentally ill often do not have close relationships, and are often single and unemployed.

Those who start fires based on delusional beliefs are likely to act alone rather than with a group.

If fire-setting is triggered by delusional beliefs, it makes sense that fire-setting would be their only or primary criminal activity.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the psychotic fire-setter needs mental health treatment and medication. If the psychosis is controlled, the fire-setting should stop when the delusions cease or are minimized. The non-psychotic fire-setter, on the other hand, tends to set fires when intoxicated and with a group of intoxicated others. This fire-setter also needs treatment for substance abuse but a jury is more likely to see this defendant as having greater responsible than the psychotic fire-setter. Treatment options for the non-psychotic fire-setter are more likely to be secondary to their criminal sentence.

Dalhuisen, L., Koenraadt, F., & Liem, M. (2015). Psychotic versus non-psychotic firesetters: similarities and differences in characteristics The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-22 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1018927


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researchers lieThanks to us, you know researchers trick people into eating dog food, put them in MRI machines that just happen to have snakes in them, and do other nefarious things. But did you know they sometimes enlist your parents in their deception? It is sad, but apparently true. Although these UK and Canadian researchers did not tell the helpful parents they were being used to help researchers lie convincingly to their young adult children.

Of course you know that science—and surely social science in particular—is driven by pure and noble intentions. Never does being deceived feel so warm and fuzzy. In this case, they wanted to know if “innocent adults participants can be convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon” between the ages of 11 and 14. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 31 years so you would think they’d have no trouble recalling if something like this were true. But no! Even in a “friendly interview”, almost 3/4 of them actually believed the false memories constructed by the researchers.

As you might imagine, this research grew out of questions related to false confessions and whether, in a lab-setting, researchers could create false memories of serious criminal behavior or serious emotional trauma in young adults. The researchers cite false memories created by other researchers including “getting lost in a shopping mall, being attacked by a vicious animal,” and even (although this is hard to believe) “having tea with Prince Charles”. So the researchers wondered if they could create false memories of crime in young adults if their “caregivers” (i.e., parents) report such an event actually happened.

The researchers recruited undergraduates from a Canadian university (N = 60; 43 females; average age 20 years with age range from 18-31 years; all but five were Caucasian  and English native speakers) and asked them to allow their parents to complete “an extensive questionnaire” reporting on various emotional events in their lives between the ages of 11 and 14. The researchers wanted to be sure of three things: that the student-participant had experienced at least one highly emotional event during those years, had never been involved in a crime, and had had no police contact during adolescence.

They actually began with more than 120 students and culled down the list to those who met these three criteria. Yes, fully half of the original group apparently flunked this screener. Since you have to be asleep between 11-14 to avoid a highly emotional experience, we are left to assume that about half of the undergrads at this university had some pretty dicey behavior at a very young age! It might also explain why most of the remaining subjects were female. This really messes with my impression of gracious and polite Canadians…

The sixty students who participated in the study were told they were in a study that was examining various memory retrieval strategies and came back to the lab for three separate 40-minute interviews that occurred about a week apart. During the first interview, the researcher told the participant about two events s/he had experienced between the ages of 11 and 14. The catch was that only one of the events were true. Some of the students were told about a crime that resulted in contact with the police (such as assault, assault with a weapon, or theft). Others were told about a false event that was emotional in nature (such as a serious personal injury, an attack by a dog, or losing a large sum of money).

To ‘hook’ the students, the researchers included some details in the stories of the false events that were true and that had actually occurred between the ages of 11 and 14. None of the students remembered any of the false events having occurred. (Thank goodness! Although when they figure out their parents aided and abetted the researchers in lying to them we predict a long line at the campus counseling center.) So when they did not recall, the researchers asked them to try harder and told them that most people can remember things they do not initially recall clearly if they just use some memory strategies (like the strategy where you consider what it would feel like to engage in the false events). And try these students did!

In the second and third interviews, the participants were asked again to recall as much as possible about the two events (one untrue/false) discussed in the first interview. The students were also asked how vivid their recollection of the event was and how confident they were in their recollection of the memories.

And here are the (shocking and disturbing) results:

30 participants were told they had committed a crime as a teenager, and 21 (71%) developed a false memory of the crime. 20 were told they had assaulted someone either with or without a weapon and 11 (55%) reported elaborate stories of their interactions with the police.

Students who were told of an emotional event also formed false memories (76.7%) of that event.

The criminal false events were just as readily believed as the emotional events. Students provided roughly the same number of details and had similar levels of confidence in the memory. The researchers believe that incorporating true details into the story and having it (supposedly) corroborated by the student’s parents was instrumental in making the false event have enough familiarity that it seemed plausible. (Lots of therapy. That’s all there is to say about this. We recommend that the therapy focus on implanting false memories of the parents having been abducted and forced to invent lies about their kids.) On a positive note, the students gave more details and had more confidence in their descriptions of the true memories. And while we have fun at the creative inclusion of the parents in this research, the researchers used the true reports of the parents as a basis for creating a false story. The parents didn’t know what was to be done with the information they provided.

The researchers explain their results by saying they think the use of the context reinstatement exercise (that’s the one where you picture what it would be like to engage in the false events) was instrumental in the results. “In other words, imagined memory elements regarding what something could have been like can turn into elements of what it would have been like, which can become elements of what it was like.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is but one in a long series of reasons for you to always question the accuracy of memory-related evidence. We have studied and written about this subject before as it has grave consequences for testimony and false confessions, especially when the confessional situation is stressful or is conducted by a professional interrogator. The idea that so many of these participants were led to believe in the accuracy of false memories in such a short period of time speaks volumes about how memory is malleable and modified over time.

Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614562862


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racial injusticeWe write a lot about racial bias here at The Jury Room and a new article from Sam Sommers and Satia Marotta is a terrific summary of how unconscious racial biases can taint the legal system. The article itself has been picked up by a number of media outlets, including ScienceDaily, Pacific Standard and blogs like The Crime Report, News.Mic, Social Science Space, Science Newsline Psychology, and more. It’s an article well worth writing about and the quality of the content is enough to publish a reprint in the upcoming February issue of The Jury Expert (where we never publish reprints, but in this case, we will).

If you click on the links in this post, you will have a good sense of what the article has to say, so we will not summarize it again here. But here are three key points taken directly from the article.

“Criminal suspects’ race affects how police confront them: Unconscious processes link Blacks and Latinos with danger. Police training and documenting outcomes (e.g., a national Justice Database) can help.

Few studies examine how race influences prosecutorial charging decisions, but evidence shows that race affects related processes (e.g., assessing juveniles, determining justifiable homicide).

Race also plays a role in court: Defendant race, victim race, and juror race all correspond to trial outcomes. Policy interventions include jury instructions regarding unconscious bias and promoting better demographic representation in juries.”

This is a terrific piece (really, go visit those URLs at the top of the post) and we’ll alert you when the February 2015 issue of The Jury Expert uploads so you can go see for yourself. We will close with another quote from the article itself that eloquently reminds us this is not just something that “other people” do:

“Addressing these disparities also requires acknowledging that all of us, regardless of personal ideology or professional oath, are susceptible to such biases, even when making life-and-death decisions.”

Sommers, S., & Marotta, S. (2014). Racial Disparities in Legal Outcomes: On Policing, Charging Decisions, and Criminal Trial Proceedings Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1 (1), 103-111 DOI: 10.1177/2372732214548431


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The Witness Credibility Scale 

Monday, February 2, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

witness credibilityIt’s hard to believe we have not blogged about this scale before, but as it happens, we’ve discussed several research articles where the scale was used but never actually described the scale itself. The Witness Credibility Scale was developed by Stan Brodsky and his then-students at the University of Alabama. If you don’t recognize his name, trust us on this one: the fact that this scale was developed by Stan Brodsky makes it worth careful consideration.

Prior to the development of this scale, there was not a published measure to assess witness credibility. Based on clues found in the existing literature, the Brodsky team hypothesized that credibility was made up of 4 separate factors: likability, believability, trustworthiness, and intelligence. They constructed a 41-item scale to measure these ideas with 264 undergraduates (average age 19 years, 68.3% women, 83.3% White, 12% Black, 3.2% Latin-American, and 1.5% “other”) and ended up with four factors labeled just a little differently: knowledge, likability, trustworthiness, and confidence. Ultimately, the final scale listed 20 adjectives that observers rate to describe how much that attribute is possessed by the witness. Combining the four factors results in a numerical rating of credibility.

The measure has been used in a variety of studies (although most have stemmed from Brodsky’s lab). It is seen as a useful tool in assessing witness credibility. Here is a sample of items from the scale itself (taken directly from the article cited below). As you can see, the various descriptive adjectives are coded on a 10-point Likert Scale.

insert for witness credibility scale

While this is not a measure you could use during trial, you could use it in pretrial research to assess your witnesses and prepare them for depositions and trial. And by testing excerpts from the depositions of opposition witnesses, you can also anticipate how well they might be received. This scale represents research you can use to improve your witnesses’ behavior and to understand where to intervene as you prepare the witness(es) for trial.

Brodsky SL, Griffin MP, & Cramer RJ (2010). The Witness Credibility Scale: an outcome measure for expert witness research. Behavioral sciences & the law, 28 (6), 892-907 PMID: 20077497


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conspiracy theoriesIt is no secret that we are intrigued by conspiracy theorists here at The Jury Room. Not only are they good for entertainment value during pretrial research, they are also very useful to help us plug holes in case narrative that could derail deliberations. When it comes to the actual trial though, conspiracy enthusiasts are usually seen as too risky for either side, and their presence often results in agreed strikes.

Here’s an interesting piece of research that doesn’t really help us to identify the individual conspiracy buff, but, does tell us the sort of environment in which the conspiracy theorist thrives.

These researchers believe that emotional uncertainty creates a desire (even a need) to compensate. We try to achieve a sense of certainty and, despite how odd it may sound, there is comfort in the conspiracy theory (since it can provide an explanation for why things are the way they are). Whether it is a reasonable or logical explanation is not what is important. And it isn’t just conspiracy theories that give us comfort in times of uncertainty. Horoscopes, seeing real or even illusory patterns, belief in a strong government or a “controlling and interventionist god”– all these things give a sense of stability and order in the world. Or as the authors put it,

“Whether one finds comfort in a strong government, astrological predictions, or vast conspiracies mapping out our fates, all are responses potentially driven by the uncertain seeking predictable structure in our capricious world.”

So, the researchers wanted to see if emotional uncertainty could affect conspiracy beliefs, beliefs in the paranormal, or the tendency to defend government actions. They used emotions that resulted in both certainty and uncertainty, as well as positive and negative emotions. Specifically, they examined happiness and contentment (certain and positive emotions); anger and disgust (certain and negative emotions); surprise and hope (uncertain and positive emotions); and worry and fear (uncertain and negative emotions). Once they identified these emotions, they asked 251 participants (112 male, average age 32.5 years) recruited from an online survey program to:

“Please recall a particular incident in which you were very [emotion]. What made you feel [emotion]? Recall this situation as vividly as you can. Please describe this situation in which you were [emotion] — what happened, how you felt, etc.”

By asking for this description of the situation, the researchers are “priming” the research subjects to re-experience the emotions. In this pretest, they found that when they asked participants to respond to this stimulus, participants felt the emotion described and their experiences were indeed experienced as either certain or uncertain (as the researchers had intended). The researchers then moved on to three separate experiments.

In the first experiment, the researchers examined the support of governmental defense and had 98 participants complete the same emotional recall task. They found that those in uncertain emotional conditions scored higher on (that is, they felt more strongly positive about government defense.

When they were uncertain, they wanted stronger governmental defense.

On the second experiment, the researchers looked at conspiracies and the paranormal. The 97 participants completed the same emotional recall task as before and were then asked to read scenarios that were purposely ambiguous “as to whether several individuals were coordinating their efforts to obtain an outcome”. Then they answered items from two scales measuring their belief in the paranormal. Again, those in uncertain emotional conditions showed greater endorsement of conspiracy beliefs and greater endorsement of belief in the paranormal.

When they were uncertain, there was higher belief in both conspiracy and the paranormal.

Finally, in the third experiment, the researchers looked at whether they could intervene in a way that would negate the power of the uncertain emotions. They cite prior research saying “having individuals contemplate and affirm important values they hold increases many positive states, including perceptions of personal control”. This time the researchers asked 161 participants (161 male, average age 29.8 years) to identify which of six values taken from  the Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Values scale were most important to them. In the affirmation condition, the participants were asked to complete a subscale on the same value they had ranked most important. This, said the researchers, gave the participants the opportunity to self-affirm (that is, focus on things of greatest importance to themselves, giving them a greater sense of self-assurance). Those in the no-affirmation condition completed a subscale on the value they ranked as least important to them (and thus had no affirmation).

This time, those who had uncertain emotions but were given a chance to self-affirm, had no desire for increased government defense. In other words, self-affirmation worked to help participants feel they had control and structure and thus they did not look to external aids (like increased government defense) to help them feel safer.

Overall, say the researchers, uncertainty in emotional state–regardless of whether it is positive or negative– leads to a desire for structure and a sense of control. Thus, uncertain people are prone to accept conspiracy theories, belief in the paranormal, and to endorse agreement with higher levels of governmental defense. Those tendencies can be curbed, however, by offering the uncertain individual self-affirmation. Self-affirmation stabilizes the uncertainty and allows the individual to respond in a measured way not driven by the uncertainty.

This raises interesting questions about case presentation at trial. There is a tendency to want to satisfy jurors’ interest in “knowing” all of the facts. But this research says that in some cases, leaving jurors with a sense of uncertainty or foreboding might actually bring them to a state of mind more useful to your case.

Do you want to focus their attention on a particular alleged wrong-doer (typically a Plaintiff or Prosecution goal), or do you want to create a diffusion of responsibility, where it is borne by a number of parties, perhaps some not named in the dispute (more likely a Defense goal)?

So part of the task for the psychologically savvy trial lawyer is to give thought to what kind of emotional tone is best for jurors to carry into deliberations.

Do jurors tend to favor your position when they feel centered, focused on their values and priorities, and confident?

Do they think your way when they are worried or anxious, uncertain about life, and powerless?

This knowledge won’t change the facts, and the impact of this research is nuanced. But when you are seeking out every advantage you can identify, this is one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Whitson, J., Galinsky, A., & Kay, A. (2015). The emotional roots of conspiratorial perceptions, system justification, and belief in the paranormal Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 89-95 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.09.002


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