Professor´s Research Aims to Explain Wrong Convictions

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Professor’s research aims to explain wrong convictions

By caitlin.clark

Created Jul 10 2013 – 11:09am

Jul 10 2013 – 11:09am | Paige Lambert [1]

A Texas State criminal justice professor is researching the theories behind criminal investigations and finding flaws in cases that can place innocent people behind bars.

According to Kim Rossmo, one less person would have been a victim of murder if police officers in Williamson County accused the correct man in a case that gained national attention more than two decades ago. Rossmo said Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 and sent to prison for a murder he did not commit, and the real murderer struck again two years later in Austin. Rossmo said he began his research, titled “Wrongful Convictions and Wrongful Thinking: Failures in Criminal Investigations,” in 2001 after his past experiences as a police officer in Vancouver.

Rossmo said his research pinpoints three investigative errors that contribute to wrongful convictions: cognitive biases, organizational traps and probability errors. Rossmo consulted literature about cognitive bias, engineering errors and law enforcement to effectively understand these type of thinking errors.

“Sometimes there were cases that were solvable but the police just have the wrong theory and won’t budge when the evidence presented itself,” Rossmo said. “The worst is a wrongful conviction. That’s what I was interested in—why did that happen and what can be done to prevent it from occurring in the future?”

Cognitive bias is like tunnel vision in which an individual has made a decision and will not consider any other evidence, Rossmo said.

Jim Doyle, Boston defense lawyer, said relying one eyewitness accounts too heavily is one of the reasons investigators hold tight to theories that can prove to be incorrect.

“Its very difficult in the investigation business to keep looking left or right instead of going straight down the tunnel as fast as they can,” Doyle said. “(Investigators) often ran past warning signs because they just weren’t looking for them anymore.”

Jim Trainum, a retired investigator from Washington D.C. who worked with Rossmo, said investigators sometimes become prideful and protective of their theories.

“If you’re assigned a homicide case that is your case,” Trainium said. “It is a great disgrace for you to not be able to solve it or to have someone else solve it for you.”

Rossmo said it is more difficult to change a theory when group think comes into play. Group think occurs from organizational traps like bureaucracy, Rossmo said. When new evidence requires a theory to be reevaluated, whole agencies are less likely to consider it because of the required time and effort it takes.

The third error often made in wrongful convictions is understanding probability, which Rossmo said is very important to the criminal justice system.

These three errors all played a part in the wrongful Morton conviction, Rossmo said.

Trainum said Rossmo’s research has helped law enforcement officials become aware of reform that needs to be made.

“When other professions make mistakes, they study them and come up with recommendations to fix it, and we don’t do that in law enforcement,” Trainum said. “(Rossmo’s) research has made these concepts less alien to us. He sets up a methodology for us to use.”

Rossmo said he hopes to use research to create a protocol for how investigators should approach evidence in a case where these situations arise.

“A lot of the problems that can occur within an agency can be mitigated by getting a fresh perspective,” Rossmo said. “It’s like trying to edit your own paper. It’s difficult to be critical and open minded about something we’ve already made up our mind on.”

Rossmo said now that his research has been made known to the university, he hopes students will use it in their master’s theses and dissertations.

“I’m just trying to expand our knowledge of these things and prevent them from happening,” Rossmo said. “We want to do research that has applications in the real world, not something that just sits on a shelf.”

Paige Lambert


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