image title
Forensic expert bias "very common" in trials, ASU assistant professor says.
America's adversarial legal system clashes with empirical, objective science.
February 25, 2016

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.

Tess Neal

ASU assistant professor Tess Neal
analyzes how the biases of forensic
experts inform their testimony and,
therefore, the decisions made by
the courts.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Because the American legal system is designed to be adversarial — that is, there are two sides to every case, and it is the job of each side to present its best argument based on the evidence — attorneys are ethically obligated to advocate for whichever side they happen to be on.

“This is where science and law clash,” said Neal, citing a recent study involving forensic experts. In the study, participants were asked to evaluate evidence in a hypothetical case. Before doing so, they were informed of which side — prosecution or defense — they were hired by. The result was that their evaluation of the evidence changed based on which side they were told they were working for.

What that shows, Neal explained, is that even trained forensic experts “can get subtly absorbed into that adversarial way of thinking.” And that biases the way they perceive information, interpret data and reach opinions.

“This is a touchy subject, and I don’t want to alienate myself from my field … but they’re human beings. … It’s impossible not to be impacted by the limitations of human cognition,” she said.

However, she also believes it’s possible to reduce the likelihood of bias, which is her ultimate goal:

“I hope with this body of research, and with my career, that I can help clinicians — this group of which I am a member — to understand the limitations of what we bring and not be overconfident in how objective we are, and not be overconfident in the opinions that we provide to the court, and try to stick with the science and not go beyond science.”

Neal made a big step toward that goal with the publication of the paper “Forensic Psychologists' Perceptions of Bias and Potential Correction Strategies in Forensic Mental Health Evaluations” in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

In the paper, she and co-author Stanley L. Brodsky break down 25 methods forensic experts use to control their bias into four categories: things people say they do that actually work and that science says probably do; things people say they do that science hasn’t yet tested; things people say they do that science says don’t work and may actually make bias worse; and other strategies not recognized by forensic clinicians.

Identifying and evaluating current methods is just part of the process. “We still have some work to do,” Neal conceded — namely, testing and proposing newer, better methods. One method that she finds promising is known as “blinding procedures,” where the forensic expert hired to evaluate evidence isn’t told which side of the case their findings will be used for. The result is a more independent, neutral opinion, and many forensic labs are adopting this practice.

Also working in Neal’s favor is that fact that there is currently a lot of federal support for reducing the margin of error in such forensic methods as fingerprint and blood-spatter analysis. She hopes to take advantage of that by advocating for the same kind of support for reducing the likelihood of bias in forensic psychology. She’ll soon have the chance to do so on a higher level when she speaks on the topic at the American Psychology-Law Society annual conference March 10-12 in Atlanta.

Until then, Neal is enjoying teaching a course on forensic psychology at ASU. The class recently observed footage from the trial of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which included the testimony of no less than seven mental-health experts, all with varying opinions as to Dahmer’s mental state.

“I think it’s an interesting class,” said Neal. “But I’m biased.”

image title
Man behind the music: Les Paul celebrated in 1-day exhibit at ASU.
February 25, 2016

Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience at ASU for one-day exhibit about the famed musician and inventor

Popular music has produced some towering figures over the years, from Elvis Presley to Beyoncé, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to name a few. But when you gauge the entire history of pop music, Les Paul might be more important than all of them.

We’re talking about the man, not the guitar.

Yes, the Les Paul-designed guitar — with its iconic curves and smooth, full sound — has become an industry standard, played by everyone from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin to guitar god Eric Clapton. But the man behind the guitar is just as worthy of adulation as an accomplished jazz and country guitarist, television personality, the facilitator of guitar-oriented rock and, perhaps his most noteworthy exploit, the inventor of multi-track recording.

Not bad for a kid from Wisconsin.

ASU’s School of MusicASU's School of Music is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. and the Les Paul Foundation are sharing his creativity, innovative spirit and love of sound in an intriguing, free mobile experience Friday, Feb. 26, at the Tempe campus, continuing a tour that began last summer in honor of what would have been the icon’s 100th birthday.

“A lot of people outside of music don’t know who Les Paul is or they just say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s that guitar guy,’ ” said Jeff Salmon, a trustee with the Les Paul Foundation who was also a longtime friend of the legend.

“We knew we had to do something to honor his contributions to music and technology, and preserve his legacy. So we decided to bring this to the people in a way that promotes creative and innovative thinking.”

“Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience” will be open from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Friday adjacent to the Sun Devil Fitness Complex. It will also be on campus later that day from 6 to 11:30 p.m. as part of Devilpalooza, which will feature a free Hunter Hayes concert later that night on ASU's Sun Devil Fitness Center East Field.

The attraction is 1,000 square feet of entertaining, inspiring and innovative interactive digital experiences. Through several double-sided listening stations, 3-D animations and graphic displays, attendees can learn about the personal story of Les Paul (pictured above with Paul McCartney) and his never-ending search for a unique musical sound through decades of experimentation. Users can marvel at his performing techniques, mix and share music and even get their picture taken with the legend.

“Les Paul is an important figure in the history of the guitar, and this is a great opportunity for students to learn more about this man and what he contributed to music,” said Frank Koonce, a professor of music in ASU’s School of Music. “My students are mostly classical guitarists, but most of them have a background in electric guitar playing and still do play styles other than classical. I think we should embrace Les Paul, know he’s part of our heritage and see what a remarkable man he was.”

Koonce saw Paul play about a decade ago at the Iridium, a famed New York City nightclub, when the icon was in his 80s.

“I was amazed by how good he was at that point in his life,” Koonce said. “He was still a very fine player.”

Lester William Polsfuss — who later adopted Les Paul as his stage name — amazed a lot of people during his lifetime, which started in 1915. As a young boy, he taught himself the harmonica, piano, banjo and guitar. A few years later he invented musical devices such as a neck-worn harmonica holder, which was made out of a coat hanger; constructed from scratch an amplifier for his guitar; and eventually, the first solid-body guitar, often credited for making the sound of rock ’n’ roll even possible.

As a musician, Paul first made his foray into country music in the Midwest and later developed an interest in jazz-pop. He moved to New York in the mid-1930s, where he formed the Les Paul Trio and recorded with such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith.

In 1941 Paul sought to improve upon the common amplified guitar by his constant tinkering and perfectionist tendencies. The result was the first solid-body electric guitar, on which he continued to make refinements for the next decade.

Beyond his licks, trills, chording sequences and fretting techniques, Paul is credited with revolutionizing many recording and technical innovations including his pioneering use of overdubbing, multi-tracking, audio effects and speeding up the sound on his guitar on recordings with his wife, Mary Ford, with whom he scored a long string of hits, including a pair of No. 1 songs, “How High the Moon” (1951) and “Vaya Con Dios” (1953).

In that same decade, Paul introduced the first eight-track recorder and the “Gold-Top” solid-body electric guitar that bears his name. Gibson’s Les Paul Standard went on to become one of the most popular electric guitars of all time and made disciples out of Clapton, Page, Steve Miller, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman and Eddie Van Halen.

Grammy artist Laurence Juber, who was lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s Wings, said he bought a 1957 Gold-Top at Manny’s Music in New York City in January 1980.

“This model was one of the first to be fitted with ‘humbuckingA humbucking pickup is a type of electric guitar pickup that uses two coils to "buck the hum" (or cancel out the interference) picked up by coil pickups. — Wikipedia’ pickups and, while not being as coveted as the sunburst Les Pauls of the era, it was a desirable instrument,” Juber said. “It was more money than I had ever paid for a guitar, but I knew that it would be a good investment, not to mention a killer ‘axe.’ ”

Today Juber’s guitar is estimated to be worth in the area of six figures.

Others invested in Paul’s judgment of sound.

Jimi Hendrix consulted Paul on the construction of Electric Lady Studios, as did Capitol Studios, where Paul designed a series of eight trapezoidal echo chambers with 10-inch-thick concrete walls dug 30 feet deep below the mythical Capitol Records Tower building in Los Angeles. It was the favorite studio of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole, and where Juber played on hundreds of recording sessions and recorded five albums, including his latest, an untitled holiday album set for release later this year.

“Every studio has its unique echo chambers,” Juber said. “Those at Capitol are particularly fine-sounding thanks to Les Paul’s keen ear and are a significant factor in the tone of many classic recordings.”

In later years, Paul’s legend burnished.

He is the only person to be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2005, at the age of 90, he recorded his final album, “American Made, World Played.” It featured Keith Richards, Sting, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, and garnered Paul two Grammy awards.

At the end of his life, Paul continued tinkering in his basement in Mahwah, New Jersey, working on making improvements to hearing aids, according to Salmon.

“He may have been losing his hearing later in life, but certainly not his spirit because Les kept plugging away,” Salmon said. “He was Mr. Curiosity and often scratched his head when people called him a genius.”

Paul died Aug. 12, 2009, at the age of 94 from complications associated with pneumonia.

Jeff Libman, an instructor of jazz studies at ASU’s School of Music, says an exhibit of this nature at the college’s doorstep is a gift.

“To have this exhibit, which is devoted to an extraordinary musical life, and have it brought to this school where each guitar player can experience this, that’s an incredible opportunity,” Libman said.

But not nearly as incredible as the man himself.