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Archive for the ‘Forensic evidence’ Category

Okay, we admit to some level of fascination with who murders who and what happens at trial here. Usually you will find it in posts about how bias enters the courtroom. But this week, a couple of strange stories came up that made us stop and recall those older posts. If you are wondering who might murder you, you may want to stop looking for men with tattoos on their faces, ax murderers, psychopaths, and strangers on the train—and start looking at your spouse and coworkers. You just can’t trust anyone anymore.?

How to Murder Your Husband

Here’s a good hint. If your romance novelist spouse writes an essay called “How to murder your husband”—you might want to consider separation or divorce and a new identity. Earlier this month, Nancy Crampton-Brophy was arrested for allegedly murdering her chef husband (by gunshot) at his place of work. It seems Ms. Crampton-Brophy thought she could get away with this crime but she appears to have been wrong.?

Don’t just look at your spouse—how about those co-workers??

You may think you are safe at work (unless there is some random shooter wandering through the office) but this may not be accurate.? As it happens, homicide is the third-most-prevalent cause of workplace death (“falls to a lower level” is #1, and “roadway collisions with other vehicles” is #2). And if you think workplace fatalities will most impact those in blue-collar careers—you would be wrong again.?

Thanks to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we know much more than any of us wanted to know. While most workplace murderers use a gun, there is also “stabbing, cutting, slashing, piercing” aimed at objects of (we presume former) affection or those who just don’t appreciate the murdering co-worker enough.?

But there is also something called “red-collar crime”—a phrase coined by certified fraud examiners and that is what happens when a boss kills his or her assistant to keep a fraud scheme rolling along or when a whistle-blower suffers a fatal accident. Some think this red collar crime is much more prevalent than we are aware and that they are the result of narcissists and psychopaths in the office. The Atlantic did a piece on this phenomenon recently and concluded this way:?

How many office psychopaths turn violent is less clear: The FBI doesn’t track red-collar crime, nor does OSHA. Richard G. Brody, another CFE and an accounting professor at the University of New Mexico, sometimes trawls the web for murder trials involving white-collar defendants, and has become convinced that red-collar crime is more prevalent than most people suspect.?

Detectives don’t always spot such homicides, he told me, so crime scenes may be contaminated and murders may pass for suicide. “Whenever I read about high-profile executives who are found dead, I immediately think red-collar crime,” he said. “Lots of people are getting away with murder.”

You may also want to check where you currently reside to see if you might be at risk

The Washington Post wrote an article earlier this summer titled “Where Killings Go Unsolved”. Here’s part of their article that you really do not want to read when you are alone after dark:?

The Washington Post has identified the places in dozens of American cities where murder is common but arrests are rare. These pockets of impunity were identified by obtaining and analyzing up to a decade of homicide arrest data from 50 of the nation’s largest cities. The analysis of 52,000 criminal homicides goes beyond what is known nationally about the unsolved cases, revealing block by block where police fail to catch killers.?

Or you may not want to read it at all. You probably are in no danger.?


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This blog is about the intersection of social science and litigation advocacy. One of the central dilemmas litigators frequently face is how to deal with complex ideas to those who are uncomfortable with the ‘science-y’ parts of a case. Whether it is about how quickly a car decelerates, the ways in which a drug affects behavior, or the differences between two inventions—the challenge for jurors is to understand what is being asserted. And of course, that is the responsibility of the trial team and their witnesses.

We’ve all read the mass media stories saying that Americans do not trust scientists—but that may actually not be the case. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, they report that TV shows focusing on criminal investigations, in hospitals or medical settings, and even science fiction (watched by 81% of those responding) contribute to a more positive view of scientists.?

Majorities of Americans realize these types of science-related entertainment are not entirely accurate in their portrayal of science, the Center’s survey finds. By roughly two-to-one, Americans think medicine-oriented shows and movies prioritize entertainment (66%) over accuracy (32%). Similarly, Americans say crime shows focus more on entertainment than portraying science, technology and medicine in a realistic way by a margin of 62% to 35%.

But, the majority of Americans don’t believe entertainment media undermine their understanding of science, technology and medicine. About half of frequent viewers of crime-focused shows (51%) say these programs have no effect on their own understanding of science-related topics. More say these shows help than hurt their understanding by a margin of 40% to 9%.

We encourage you to read the entire report from Pew. Here we will focus instead on how to talk to real people about science in ways they can understand, grasp, and ultimately support. There are many very recent resources to help us know how to communicate science findings in ways that can be heard. These are useful tips for witness preparation, case narrative construction, and case themes.?

Neal deGrasse Tyson: An astrophysicist who knows how to talk to real people

There is a brief and very readable article in Futurism on science denial, political biases, and personal beliefs and it’s all about my favorite astrophysicist. They start with this paragraph:?

“It’s no secret that Neil deGrasse Tyson has strong feelings?when it comes to the intersection of science and belief. Science, he says, is objective. It’s not something that you believe or do not believe; it’s something that you accept or don’t accept. It remains true regardless of your personal beliefs.”

It’s a good reminder, and he goes on to say that we’ve been at this place before and it just takes time for the world to shift perspectives again. He calls it an “adaptation of personal belief systems”. Maybe it’s not a surprise that we recently spotted a bumper sticker in Asheville, NC that read “Neal deGrasse Tyson for President.”

“It is easy to see this throughout our history books. Religion used to say Earth was the center of the universe. Religion used to say that evolution was a myth. Some religious individuals may still cling to these beliefs, but many do not. The solution, it seems, is to simply wait for people to accept the objective reality that is presented to them?— to let it speak for itself.”

This is an article worthy of Tyson’s no-nonsense approach and his belief that things will ultimately be okay. But suppose your next trial cannot wait for however long it takes this pendulum to shift and you need to present complicated science??

Take a look at Scientific American: “Use common vernacular” (why can’t they just say “no big words”)

Scientific American has a heavily linked article full of resources that can help communication of complex ideas to na?ve audiences. The author mentions that when you publish in an academic journal only “10 people on average” read your work all the way through. The key (according to the author) is to get your work out there in plain language (i.e., what she calls the “common vernacular”) so that people understand what in the world you are talking about and don’t glaze over and think of lunch?or laundry rather than focusing on your presentation. The author in this article gives tips for students and young faculty members on writing opinion pieces for editorial columns but you can also find links for many substantive resources including this one from the National Academy of Sciences—Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.?

Secrets from the experts: Research-based tips for pushing back

Science Magazine just published the results from a brainstorming session at the “annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)”. More than 60 conference attendees (a mixture of researchers, teachers, students, journalists and science advocates) heard this first from the session leader:?

Session leader Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia-based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), opened?up with some cold water for the crowd. “Facts were never enough” to make a convincing case to people, he said, “so let’s just get over that.”

Perhaps the most useful part to review are the tips generated by the attendees. Read the article for the entire content. Here are tips shared by the session leader (a self-proclaimed “persuasion nerd”):

Alternative facts are not facts at all, but socially sanctioned beliefs, said Bayer [snip]. But there are ways to change minds, he said:

Appeal to the 60%. On any given issue, a group of people will contain 20% at each end of the spectrum who are so deeply dug in they’ll never be convinced. Forget them, Bayer said, and appeal to those who are persuadable.

Appeal to shared social values. [snip] In conversations, we can find things to connect about. “Politicians do that all the time,” Bayer said. They might say, “I’m just like you—I take the train.”

Appeal to the “golden child” of a group—the most admired and respected member of the group. “Every family has one,” Bayer said.

Tell stories, and help people relate to them. In 2010 on Capitol Hill, Markey, then a member of the U.S House of Representatives, persuaded his colleagues to pass a bill mandating that iPhones and other consumer electronics be accessible to the handicapped. To convince them, he called in a veteran who was blinded while serving in the Iraq War. The bill passed. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” Bayer said.

Ask for incremental change, rather than wholesale change, then do it again. For example, Bayer asked an audience member for a pad of paper to pass around to collect emails. Then he followed quickly, “Can you get me a glass of water?”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a must read series of resources. You will need to spend time thinking about how your own case facts interact with the tips included in this post. That is time well spent though so that some of your jurors “hear” your evidence and can advocate for the facts in actual deliberations.?


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It’s been a while since we updated the neurolaw area of the blog so we’re doing a combination post to alert you to a number of things we’ve seen coming across our desks. Think of these as things you can use to show colleagues how incredibly well-read and erudite you are while simultaneously dazzling them with your brilliance.

Did your brain make you do it?

Originally, this area of inquiry was frightening as some wondered if the new neuroscience defenses would dazzle jurors into excusing bad behavior because the defendant’s brain “made him do it”. As excitement over the pretty pictures of brain scans cooled, what we’ve found is that neither judges nor juries are particularly swayed by genetics. While an exciting possibility upon which to build a defense, it just hasn’t been persuasive in court. But now we have a new wrinkle in the making.

If you are a football fan, you may have heard of the issues with the NFL and the high rate of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) among former players. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that often looks much like ALS and now, attention is being focused on repeated concussions as related to the development of CTE. ESPN recently carried a story on the plight of the women married to former NFLers who struggle with the burden of medical costs and caregiving related to CTE. And also, even if you are not a football fan, you may have heard of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez who was convicted of murder and then hung himself in prison. His autopsy revealed this young man had “stage 3 of 4 of the disease and also had early brain atrophy and large perforations in a central membrane”. His family is suing the NFL and the suit is being referred to as “the CTE defense”. We’ll see where this one goes.

The MacArthur Foundation (home of the genius grants) has published a G2i knowledge brief

And what is that, you may wonder? G2i refers to “the challenge of reasoning from group data to make decisions about individuals”. [Read: Group to Individual.] Neuroscientific experts will often offer evidence from group data on how adolescents are less cognitively mature. Psychologists will offer factors contributing to eyewitness misidentification or to estimates of “future dangerousness”. All these kinds of testimonies are based on generalizing from group data to an individual person.

This brief helps you to understand the differences between group data and conclusions drawn about individuals. It is a must read document and, fortunately, it is written clearly and well so you don’t really have to be a genius to understand it.

Can fMRI’s tell if someone is lying about having chronic pain?

No. A recent international task force has released recommendations that “advise against” using brain imaging to test for whether someone is experiencing chronic pain. So how can you know if someone has pain? “The only way to truly know if someone is in pain is if they tell you because pain is subjective and it is a complex experience. No brain scan can do that.” The researchers say they continue to search for biological markers of pain but they have not yet reached that point.

When ‘not guilty’ is a life sentence

This is a very well-written article from the New York Times Magazine on what happens when someone is adjudicated “not guilty by reason of insanity”. It is a really nice example of long-form journalism that tells a story of just how hard it is to be released when you’ve been found NGRI.

In fact, despite its reputation as a “get out of jail free” card, the insanity defense has never been an easy way out — or easy to get. After a defendant is charged, the defendant, her lawyer or a judge can request evaluation by a psychiatrist. A defendant may be found incompetent to stand trial and committed for rehabilitation if she isn’t stable enough or intellectually capable of participating in the proceedings. If she is rehabilitated, she may be tried; if she cannot be, she may languish in a psychiatric hospital for years or decades. But mental illness is not exculpatory in itself: A defendant may be found mentally ill and still competent enough to stand trial. At that point, the district attorney may offer an insanity plea — some 90 percent of N.G.R.I. verdicts are plea deals. If the district attorney doesn’t offer a plea, or the defendant doesn’t take it, the case goes to trial. The defendant may still choose insanity as a defense, but then her case will be decided by a jury.

This article is part education on the system works and part story of how sad and frustrating it can be for a person who was mentally ill and committed a crime but is now treated and no longer dangerous. Yet, how do you convince a judge (or even the facility staff) that you are safe to release back into the community?

Recidivism for N.G.R.I.s is relatively low. Whereas, nationally, recidivism for released prisoners is above 60 percent, “people who are found N.G.R.I. tend to go back out into the community, and they tend to do really, really well,” Fitch says. The arrest rate for people in Maryland on conditional release, a kind of mental-health parole from the hospital, is less than half the arrest rate of the general population in the state. “If you provide treatment of illness and provide the supports they need, then they don’t reoffend,” Fitch says. As a 2016 study of N.G.R.I. recidivism in Connecticut — which has a post-release supervision program, too — also concluded: “The vast majority of individuals are not rearrested.”

It’s a sad and frightening story of a man caught in the system and the inconsistencies in the process for release. It is a good human interest story and a potentially good use of your pro bono time to help NGRI defendants return to the community after “sentences” to psychiatric hospitals that are typically much longer than the prison sentences they would have served.



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Top 10 Posts from 2017 (Part 2)

Thursday, February 1, 2018
posted by Rita Handrich

This is the second part of our Top 10 posts of 2017 (see the first here). Today, we present the Top 5 posts you visited most often in 2017.

Post No. 5: Do you know what “vocal fry” is? We didn’t either

As part of an ongoing effort to keep you informed and “up” on pop culture–we brought you this one. Now that you know what it is, it’s like an ear worm and you simply cannot stop hearing it [and here’s a tip–it’s everywhere].

Post No. 4: What will be most persuasive in your forensic expert’s testimony?

Perhaps not what you want to be most persuasive. This is one of those must reads if you are preparing for trial and have an expert to speak to the forensic evidence.

Post No. 3: Power in many things and is your smartphone lowering your IQ?

This is one of our combination posts and it focuses on power (and corruption, and poses, and the grip of our technology–and a really, really good podcast).

Post No. 2: No, seriously! That’s just how my face is!

Resting bitch face. Who thought this would come up in litigation advocacy? (We did.)

Post No. 1: Your body is a wonderland–or at least an art gallery

Just as we must update you all on the plethora of research on deception, we also are challenged to keep up with the changing meaning of tattoos. Body art. How many is okay? Does a whole arm tattoo (aka ‘sleeve’) count as one tattoo or several hundred? This is our number one post from 2017. You’re not the only one who wants to know.

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Top 10 Posts from 2017 (Part 1)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018
posted by Douglas Keene

It’s always interesting to go back and see what our readers found most noteworthy during the year. In the Top 10 (presented today and on Thursday) you will see some serious posts based on research findings with application to your work. You will also see not so serious posts that have attracted your attention. Enjoy!

Post No. 10: Steady eye contact can make it hard to think!?

We like to reference pop culture when it’s relevant (and even when it’s not sometimes) to help you take in the lesson in the research highlighted. This one references the TV show Friends (but only for the illustration gracing the post).

Post No. 9: Say it isn’t so!!! Most of us lie routinely.

This is one of two posts on deception (or lying) that made it into our Top 10. We all hate to be lied to and apparently, many of us like to learn possible ways to avoid that happening!

Post No. 8: Pique and the panhandler

Persuasion strategies are everywhere. We just have to look–sometimes when at a stoplight.

Post No. 7: Yes. It’s true. Somebody’s watching you. Constantly.?

Sometimes social sciences research informs. Other times it amuses. This time–it might just frighten you. But on the bright side, it will also make you more vigilant.

Post No. 6: There is so very much deception research. That means there are lots of liars out there…

Something happened in the past year or so and the pace of research being published on deception increased. We will not hazard a guess as to why that happened–just be comforted in knowing we are still here to keep you informed on all the ways people will try to lie to you (and others).

Come back Thursday to see Part 2 of this post. Several of our own favorites are in that post.

Image?[Note: This image has nothing to do with our blog posts but we thought you might want to be reminded what we were all most afraid of in 2017.]


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