by Casey J. Bastian
As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, health and safety preventative measures have impacted nearly every area of our society. Experts were concerned about what impact, if any, do measures such as mask mandates and virtual courtrooms have on the criminal justice system. After reviewing hundreds of studies on deception, Professor Aldert Vrij from the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology and Dr. Maria Hartwig from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded that these deviations from normal court procedures have not had a negative impact on court proceedings or the overall administration of justice.
Professor Vrij is considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts in lie detection, and his expertise is used by law enforcement agencies around the globe. After analyzing these studies, Professor Vrij said, “In some ways we deliver good news. It does not seem that the measures to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus will negatively impact juries. Provided jurors are able to clearly hear the defendant and their speech is not muffled by the mask, there is no reason for concern.”
Professor Vrij and Dr. Hartwig published a paper on their findings in the Journal of Applied Research and Memory and Cognition.The examined studies revealed that facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal behavior are actually not a reliable indicator of deception. Masks cover these actions, which actually improves the ability of jurors to distinguish between lies and truth. Removing the distraction of non-verbal behaviors, jurors are more reliant on speech content, and that is most reliable when attempting to detect deceit.
The researchers in these other analyzed studies had determined that some physical demeanor and facial expressions can be viewed as more suspicious than others. But the studies also revealed that liars are aware of this and can avoid using certain gestures and behaviors, while using others that do appear genuine. While only one of the studies focused directly on masks in court proceedings, this did not deter Professor Vrij. “With only one existing study on how face coverings impact lie detection, it is clear more research needs to be done to address questions and concerns around how the pandemic is impacting the justice system.”
The analysis of these studies on deception detection generally, and especially the one about masks in court proceedings specifically, identified areas in which the research is lacking and posed questions that need to be addressed as the judicial system continues to operate through the pandemic.
Professor Vrij added, “In other ways we draw attention to fundamentally problematic aspects of lie detection, in particular, the fact that non-verbal behavior is not helpful. It may suggest that the future lies in exploring how to translate science-based interviewing and interrogation protocols to the courtroom, to draw more accurate lie detection results from jurors.”
If we can improve juror reliability as a result of the COVID pandemic, perhaps that will be one of the good things to come out of the last couple years.
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