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One Solution to Jurors Giving Too Much Weight to Improper Forensic Testimony: 4-Minute Training Video Based on DOJ Guidelines

by Matt Clarke

Improper forensic evidence played a part in 1 out of 5 wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations as of September 2023. Studies show that jurors cannot distinguish between low-quality and high-quality forensic testimony. Yet, those same jurors are overconfident in believing they understand the complex language and statistical analysis used by testifying forensic experts, which heavily influences their verdict. As a first step in addressing this problem, a brief instructional video was developed to help jurors understand forensic testimony and differentiate between low-quality and high-quality testimony based on federal guidelines.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) approved its Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports guidelines for forensic evidence. The guidelines were intended to address misleading statements frequently used by forensic experts and included a list of several statements and terms a forensic expert should never use. Those include “error free,” “perfect,” and “to a scientific certainty.” Such terms are misleading and can strongly influence a jury.

Unfortunately for Ledura Watkins, the state’s forensic expert used several of those terms during his 1976 murder trial. The 19-year-old Watkins was accused of murdering a public-school teacher. The only physical evidence linking him to the crime was a single hair, recovered from the crime scene, which the forensic expert said matched Watkins to a “reasonable scientific certainty,” one of the terms highlighted in the guidelines as improper. The forensic expert also described his analysis as “perfect,” another such term, because he had performed thousands of analyses and never been wrong, an improper statement under the guidelines.

The consequences for Watkins were devastating. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. He spent 41 years in prison before being exonerated.

The Conversation decided to see if jurors could be trained to recognize low-quality forensic testimony. It put together an interdisciplinary panel consisting of legal psychologists, forensic experts, and an attorney to develop an educational tool for jurors. Inspired by a judge’s use of short videos to educate jurors, the team created a 4-minute forensic education video that focuses on pattern comparisons, especially fingerprints, and tires and shoe imprints.

The video narrator explains what a forensic expert is and how they might testify. It describes how pattern comparison examinations are conducted and what terms and statements are appropriate or not based on the DOJ guidelines.

Mock jurors were used to test the video’s effectiveness. Those who had not seen the video tended to rate both low-quality and high-quality forensic testimony highly. Those who had seen the video were more likely to rate low-quality forensic testimony lower. The video did not cause jurors to develop a general distrust of forensic evidence, one of the possible concerns expressed by the team.

The team sees this as an easily implemented first step in enabling jurors to understand and competently evaluate testimony about forensic evidence. It could help counter the documented “CSI effect” in which jurors accept anything a prosecution forensic expert testifies to. This could aid juries in fulfilling their role of serving as an objective factfinder and hopefully help prevent future wrongful convictions based on faulty forensic testimony, the likes of which robbed Watkins of over four decades of his life.   

 

Source: conversation.com

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