Researchers Investigate Possible Bias In Forensic Experts, Crime Labs
September 1, 2013

Researchers Investigate Possible Bias In Forensic Experts, Crime Labs

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Two new, recently published studies are calling into question the ethics about forensic experts and state crime labs, showing how bias could impact these two vital cogs in the law enforcement machine.

One paper, published August 22 in the journal Psychological Science, demonstrates how forensic experts who are expected to be 100 percent impartial while giving expert testimony actually tend to show favoritism to the side which employs them, according to Nick Collins of The Telegraph.

As part of their study, the University of Virginia authors recruited 118 forensic psychologists and psychiatrists and asked them to evaluate the case files of violent sex offenders. They alternately told the experts the work was either for the prosecution or the defense attorneys, Collins said.

Even though each consultant reviewed the same four files and used the same techniques to evaluate the offenders, their conclusions varied based on who they believed was paying them for their work, he added. Those who were told they were hired by the prosecution rated the offenders as being a greater danger to society than those who thought they had been commissioned by the defense – a phenomenon referred to as the “allegiance effect.”

“Most expert witnesses believe they perform their job objectively. These findings suggest this may not be the case,” Daniel Murrie, one of the authors of the study, told Popular Science. He and his colleagues used surveys which had previously been shown to work effectively (i.e. experts using them typically reach the same conclusions when not in a courtroom setting), and their findings illustrates a need for the scientific community to find some way to help reduce this bias, reporter Francie Diep added.

Similarly, the other study – which was published this summer in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics – details how the US criminal justice system has, perhaps unwittingly, created incentives for false convictions by funding public crime labs in part on a per-conviction basis.

The study, which was written by Syracuse University finance professor Roger Koppl and Fairleigh Dickinson University assistant professor of criminology Meghan Sacks, highlights “the cognitive bias problem in state crime labs,” claims Huffington Post reporter Radley Balko.

Koppl and Sacks wrote that their research shows that the number of false convictions each year in the US criminal justice system is considered “high.” Furthermore, the authors report their research revealed police officers, prosecutors and forensic scientists “often have an incentive to garner convictions with little incentive to convict the right person,” and that those incentives “create what economists call a ‘multitask problem’ that seems to be resulting in a needlessly high rate of false convictions.”