When forensic experts are swayed by an adversarial legal system
It’s one of those nightmare situations you hope you never find yourself in: sitting on death row for a crime you didn’t commit. In 1977 that nightmare became a reality for Randall Dale Adams, thanks to the testimony of Texas forensic psychiatrist James Grigson.
Despite doubt concerning Adams’ guilt in the murder of a Dallas police officer, Grigson told the jury that Adams would be an ongoing menace if kept alive, and he was subsequently sentenced to death.
Publicity surrounding the 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line” did much to warrant a review of Adams’ case, resulting in the overturning of his conviction and his release from prison in 1989. Six years later, Grigson was found guilty of unethical conduct and was expelled by the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians.
Grigson was also known by another name: Dr. Death. Throughout his career, he developed a reputation for serving as an expert witness, but only for the side of the prosecution. When all was said and done, he had testified in 167 capital trials, nearly all of which resulted in death sentences.
Such implicit bias, for whatever reason — be it monetary gain or even anger at the defendant and desire for retribution — is “very common,” according to Arizona State University assistant professor Tess NealTess Neal is an assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, an academic unit of ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences..
Herself a licensed psychologist, Neal recently received the Saleem Shah AwardNeal is the 20th recipient of the Saleem Shah Early Career Award, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the interdisciplinary field of psychology-law within six years of completing their highest academic degree. for Early Career Excellence in Psychology and Law for her interdisciplinary research blending psychology, ethics and law to understand how people reach decisions in the legal system. Specifically, she has analyzed how the biases of forensic experts inform their testimony and, therefore, the decisions made by judges, lawyers and other members of the courts.
“As a professional psychologist, you’re ethically obligated to not be influenced by your own [biases],” said Neal. “You’re supposed to know that they’re there, and then account for them. We know that that’s really hard to do, and in fact, probably impossible. But the clinicians are trained to think they can do it, and that they have to be objective, so they’re really invested in it.”
Unfortunately, bias isn’t always as obvious as in the case of Grigson — even to the experts themselves.