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New College prof helps land National Institute of Justice grant

January 08, 2009

A major grant to fund some of the country’s first research centered on the psychology of decision-making using forensic science expert evidence has been awarded to Arizona State University by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

And New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Assistant Professor Dawn McQuiston-Surrett is smack-dab in the middle of the research.  McQuiston-Surrett is one of three ASU faculty who are among the first scholars to study how jurors respond to fingerprints, bite marks, tool marks, handwriting, footwear impressions, tire tracks and other types of forensic identification evidence.  She is joined by Jonathan “Jay” Koehler and Michael Saks, professors at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

“This research has implications for both policy and practice,” says McQuiston-Surrett of the $496,450 NIJ grant.  “It can inform forensic scientists concerning how to best present this testimony during trial.  It could be useful for policymakers when developing standards for the admissibility of forensic evidence in court.  It might also benefit the courts as they develop judicial instructions that address the meaning and limits of forensic identification science.”

McQuiston-Surrett received her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2003, focusing on law and psychology.  She joined the ASU faculty in 2003 and has centered her research on the application of psychological science to issues relevant to the legal system.  One of her main areas of interest is the examination of factors that affect decision-making in the courtroom, including how jurors evaluate scientific evidence, how courtroom atmosphere and audience dynamics affect jurors’ judgments, and the role of ethnicity in jurors’ decisions.

“Dawn McQuiston-Surrett’s research possesses a level of statistical sophistication, combined with an equal level of legal and political sophistication, that is rare in the academy,” says ASU Vice President and New College Dean Elizabeth Langland.  “Students who work in her lab are not only exposed to a superior example of interdisciplinary scholarship in law and psychology but also have the opportunity to share in research that promises to make important contributions to the emerging field of psycho-legal scholarship.”

The grant will span two years and is broken into two phases.  The first phase will involve the creation of videotaped simulated trial segments displaying various forms of expert testimony presented by forensic scientists.  The second phase will include the conducting of studies using jury-eligible participants from the community and students at ASU who will view the simulated trials and deliberate about the forensic evidence presented.

“The need for this type of research has been made salient in recent years by challenges to the accuracy of some of the forensic sciences, such as fingerprint analysis, and also by a realization that faulty forensic identification evidence sometimes plays an important role in the conviction of innocent people,” notes McQuiston-Surrett, who is the director of the Legal Psychology Research Laboratory at ASU.

“Little is known about what factors affect the way jurors think about and use forensic evidence.  Our work will examine what factors influence their evaluations of this evidence, and how forensic scientists can best communicate the value of forensic evidence in the courtroom.

“We ultimately hope to gain insight into how to help jurors understand and properly weight forensic science evidence.”

It is no wonder McQuiston-Surrett was a central figure in the grant.  A faculty member in New College’s Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, she established the Legal Psychology Research Laboratory upon her arrival at ASU.  Research in this lab for undergraduate students involves the study of jurors’ evaluation of expert evidence, extra-legal factors in courtroom decision making, and eyewitness testimony.  Students in the lab will be involved in the NIJ research program, assisting in the production of the videotaped trials and recruiting jury-eligible participants from the community to form simulated juries.

“Students who work in my laboratory have a variety of academic interests, including psychology, criminal justice, law, political science and communications,” says McQuiston-Surrett.  “The lab is structured as a teaching laboratory for undergraduates who are considering graduate school or law school, and the training they receive parallels that of beginning graduate work.

“These students as research assistants play an integral role in all of the research I do and regularly present our research at national and international conferences.  For students who plan to go on to research-intensive doctoral programs, gaining this type of experience at the undergraduate level is critical, so acquiring these skills benefits them greatly as they consider the next level of their education.”