Skip to main content

An exercise in introductions

The legal system is a source of endless fascination. Crime novels, cop shows, procedural dramas – while fiction, all depict the process by which society punishes the bad guys and protects the innocent. Of course, we need not always turn to fiction to be pulled in by compelling stories of crime and legal processes. Real life cases, reported on by the news, true-crime shows, and increasingly deep-dive documentaries, books, and podcasts can be as engaging as the fictional cases. There exist many parts of the justice system that we are drawn to, spanning from how people can commit crimes, to how crimes are investigated, to what happens in trial. But how much do we, as society, truly understand the legal process we have devised to protect and serve us? We often imagine the legal system is made up of rules, regulations, procedures, and a dash of forensic science to make sure that justice is fair. However, in many cases, the design of the legal system is based on weak evidence and harmful misconceptions.

Take, for instance, the growing movement to do away with cash bail. On its face, the bail system makes intuitive sense – the risk of losing money will motivate people to show up for their trial. In practice, however, bail leads to a system that punishes the poor. Those that cannot afford thousands to tens of thousands of dollars don’t get to go home. Instead, they remain in jail as legally innocent people, until they have been convicted or acquitted in court.

This, of course, is but one example. In fact, psychological scientists across the world have dedicated entire careers to identifying problems and solutions in the justice system. This blog is run by two such scientists. Dr. Timothy Luke and Dr. William Crozier both received their PhDs in psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York*. Though we both study psychology and law, we have different specialties. Timothy’s work has focused on police and military interrogation techniques, confessions, and lie detection. Will’s work focuses on how memory, and particularly memory mistakes, impact the justice system throughout the legal process. In our research collaborations, we find examples of where social and cognitive psychology interact in the law, identifying what problems may arise, and how we can fix it.

Briefly, we use scientific inquiry (for example, experiments with human participants) to identify ways in which legal practices may not be as fair as they should be. Equipped with scientific evidence, we take what we learn and try to create new practices for investigations and legal procedures that will not put innocent people at risk for wrongful conviction, while at the same time identifying and bringing the real culprits to justice.

Unfortunately, most psychological research that relates to the legal system is only reported in academic journals, in highly technical language. Or worse, it is translated to the public by non-academic publications that can exaggerate or misinterpret the science. If you’ve ever wanted scientific answers about how memory works, how to tell if someone is lying, how to conduct an effective interrogation, or whether juries can disregard inadmissible evidence – we’ll talk about those things, and more.. If you binged Making a Murderer or Serial, wonder what Criminal Minds gets right and gets wrong, or always react to the dun duun of Law and Order, then this is the place for you Here on this blog, we plan to explore research at the intersection of psychology and law in a style and in formats accessible to people less familiar with scientific reporting. We will approach the legal system from a scientific standpoint, specifically focusing on psychological processes at work in the justice system.

We’ll discuss both current and classic psychology research that shows us legal practices don’t work the way we naively expect them to – like that people will confess to a crime they didn’t commit. We’ll also discuss things we don’t know and need more research on, such as the best ways to interrogate suspects and informants to obtain information. Occasionally, we may get a bit sidetracked by talking about the difference between good science and bad science, or the type of things psychologists can, and cannot, conclude from their work. Overall, we’ll be discussing the things that fascinate us about the legal system, including real-life criminal cases, controversial policies, and implementations of science-based practices.

As our blog title suggests, an overarching theme will be finding exceptions to the rules we often take for granted. The legal system is, to a large extent, built on assumed rules about the way people behave and the way certain legal practices should work. But psychological science tells us these assumed rules often have important exceptions. A detailed confession is an excellent piece of evidence – except when it’s given by an innocent person. Several witnesses giving consistent statements about how a crime happened are highly informative – except when they’ve been speaking to each other and have contaminated each other’s memories. Plea bargains make the criminal justice system operate more efficiently and effectively – except when innocent people plead guilty. Here, we will often take a concept, idea, or process (for example, eyewitness identification), discuss its intended purpose (evidence to catch a perpetrator), and then find ways in which that concept, idea, or process fails to accomplish its goal, like when a very confident eyewitness actually makes a mistake about who they recognize and inadvertently sends an innocent person to prison.

We’ll identify questions, and try to determine if we have the scientific evidence to answer the question. If we don’t have a good answer, we’ll try to figure out what it would take to find the answer. We’ll argue with ourselves and others. We’ll debate and deliberate about what we know about psychology and law and how we know it. We’ll question rules, laws, and assumptions. This is an exercise in exceptions.

*Strictly speaking, our PhDs are from the Graduate Center of CUNY, but we spent the vast majority of our grad school experience working at John Jay. 

Will Crozier and Timothy Luke wrote this post.


Popular posts from this blog

Let's talk about the role of psychology in law

Will and Timothy are joined by guest Dr. Jason Chin, for a chat about the relationship between psychology and law. In this chat format, we gather regular authors and guests in Slack and have a moderated conversation, guided by prompts and questions selected in advance. Participants get to respond to each other's points, make comments, and ask each other questions in real-time. The transcript has been lightly edited. Will Crozier &#x1F419 Welcome to another Exercise in Exceptions chat! We’ve talked a lot about how psychology research can influence the law – but that research needs to make it into the courts to actually make the intended difference. However, it’s never as easy as explaining a study or two to a jury. In this chat, we’re going to discuss this collision a bit – how psychology science is used in the legal system. Timothy and I are joined by Dr. Jason Chin , a lecturer at the TC Beirne School of Law at University of Queensland, Australia. Wel

When investigations go wrong – in science and policework

A story of both a wrongful conviction and scientific fraud We’ve talked about many of the ways police investigations can go wrong, including mistaken eyewitness identifications , memory errors , and false confessions . Often, when people imagine police investigations running afoul, they imagine egregious cases in which police plant evidence or physically torture suspects to get them to produce confessions they know are false. Although situations like that do occur, mistakes in investigations require no intentional wrongdoing. A detective doesn’t need to be trying to get a false confession, for instance, in order to get one ( as our guest writer Fabi Alceste has written about) . Errors happen often without the investigators realizing anything has gone wrong. Similarly, when people imagine bad scientific research happening, they often imagine scientists fabricating data or committing outright fraud. Scientific fraud is a problem, but it’s quite rare. However, there are many questio

Interrogation, coercion, and false confessions: The case of Brendan Dassey

In December 2015, Netflix brought the justice system to the forefront of the public consciousness with its award-winning documentary Making a Murderer . The 10-episode serialization followed the story of Steven Avery – a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1985, spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated, and was then arrested and ultimately convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. While the documentary focuses primarily on Steven Avery as the main suspect, Making a Murderer also highlighted a lesser-known element of the case: the confession and conviction of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew. Although there’s a lot to analyze in this case, we focus here on a nagging question – did Brendan Dassey give a false confession? Dassey’s involvement in the case was little understood until Netflix’s deep dive into the case, but has emerged as one of the most scrutinized and tragic elements. Briefly, the police focused on Avery as a suspect in the disappe