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Federal grant to help law, psychology professors


December 11, 2008

Three professors at Arizona State University are among the first scholars in the country to receive funding from the National Institute of Justice to research the psychology of decision-making using forensic science expert evidence.

A $496,450 grant was awarded to Dawn McQuiston-Surrett, an assistant professor of psychology in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at ASU's West campus and to Jonathan "Jay" Koehler and Michael Saks, professors at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, to study how jurors respond to fingerprints, bite marks, tool marks, handwriting, footwear impressions, tire tracks and other types of forensic identification evidence.

McQuiston-Surrett said the research is important because, unlike the analysis of DNA, forensic identification tests are based largely on the subjective judgment of examiners who then testify about whether or not crime-scene evidence matches evidence taken from a suspect.

"Jurors are expected to understand forensic testimony and to give it the appropriate weight when making their decisions during deliberations, but we actually know very little about what factors affect the way they think about and use this evidence," she said.

The two-year grant will enable the researchers to probe new aspects of what matters to jurors, said Koehler, who is also a Professor of Finance at the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

"We will explore whether jurors are sensitive to the reliability of the expert opinion evidence and the context within which the forensic science evidence is offered," he explained. "For example, we'll investigate whether jurors are sensitive to the quality of the technology that was used to produce an incriminating match against a suspect, and whether jurors' beliefs about the strength of that match depend on the nature of other evidence against the suspect."

A variety of basic things already are known about how jurors think, said Saks, who is also a Professor in the ASU Department of Psychology. Other studies have determined that jurors tend to believe forensic identification evidence even when they have little understanding of it, and that they take seriously their roles as legal decision-makers, he said.

"But some studies show that their beliefs about the significance of the forensic science evidence can vary quite a bit based on relatively minor variations in the way the evidence is described or the context within which the evidence is heard," Saks said. "So, we want to know more about the conditions under which jurors give more and less weight to such evidence in their deliberations, and when jurors are more and less likely to understand the evidence."

The research will employ a degree of realism not usually present in jury research, in that the participants will be people who are called for jury duty, rather than a convenience sample of students, Koehler said.

"They will view a portion of a trial in which the testimony and arguments are very close to those that arise in actual cases around the country," he explained.

Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the College of Law, said the College is fortunate to have on its faculty leading international scholars on forensic science and the psychology of juries.

This project perfectly blends these two strengths, and I expect that the resulting study will be of interest and importance to judges, scientists and policy-makers," Berman said.

The scholars anticipate their findings will benefit the justice system in a number of ways.

"Lawyers who learn of these findings will inevitably want to find out what `works' to advance their advocacy goals in particular cases," Saks said. "But our real concern is how to help judges, jurors and policy-makers understand the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of expert evidence. This may help legal decision-makers use the evidence appropriately, to give it the right amount of weight in deliberations, and help policy-makers identify rules for the introduction and discussion of this evidence in the courtroom."

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law