Could Confirmation Bias Send You To Prison?

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Jun 22

Lewis & Laws

Could Confirmation Bias Send You To Prison?

by Lewis & Laws

Could Confirmation Bias Send You To Prison?

There is a deep systemic problem in our judicial system. Every year, numerous innocent men and women are sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. These wrongful convictions do not just occur because of a couple biased prosecutors or police officers. The problem is significantly deeper.

A new study suggests that wrongly incarcerated individuals are the victims of multiple structural problems in our judicial system. Multiple and co-occurring causes like confirmation bias, pressure from media outlets and groupthink work together to result in wrongful convictions.

The study, published in the Northeastern University Law Review in 2019, examined 275 wrongful convictions and criminal investigative failures. This examination revealed that confirmation bias is one main component of wrongful convictions. Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to search harder for evidence that confirms rather than contradicts one's own beliefs and initial judgments.

In short, once police, jurors, judges and investigators have made up their minds, they have a strong desire to prove themselves right. This comes at the expense of innocent men and women.

How Does Confirmation Bias Result in Wrongful Convictions?

When police become focused on a suspect, they begin to develop “tunnel vision.” This tunnel vision leads them to interpret evidence that confirms their bias. They build a case against the person that they believe is guilty and begin to minimize evidence that might point in a different direction. Ambiguous evidence is also dismissed or interpreted in a way that supports their conclusions.

Investigators may coerce confessions or ignore inconsistencies in stories because of their own biases. They may even inadvertently stack the deck when talking with victims by planting ideas in their heads or pushing them towards a particular suspect. This confirmation bias occurs for a variety of reasons, including racism, prejudice and pressure from superiors and media in high profile cases.

The study confirmed that confirmation bias in a criminal case switches the case from one that focuses on evidence to one that focuses on the suspect. This infects the entire case and results in an inability to consider other alternatives even when evidence points in a different direction.

In high-profile cases, the media frenzy further drives prosecutors to do whatever it takes to solve the case and put someone behind bars. This often results in prosecutors ignoring crucial evidence, even when they are trained to be objective and balanced.

In the study, a shocking 88 percent of the cases analyzed suffered from confirmation bias. To combat this, the authors believe that there should be better procedures for evidence collection, evaluation and analysis. In addition, training programs to “de-bias” investigators may help to tip the scales back.

17 Years Behind Bars as an Innocent Man

One of these cases occurred in Woodland, Washington. In 1993, Alan Northrop was working as a logger. He had two children and a budding small engine repair business. That same year, a housekeeper was sexually assaulted while cleaning a home in the area. The woman was blindfolded and recalled little about the two men who raped her except that they were men - one with dark hair.

The victim worked with law enforcement to develop a composite sketch, and Alan became targeted because he resembled the sketch, even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. The police zeroed in on Alan and his friend Larry as suspects.

Following highly suggestive eyewitness identification procedures, the victim reluctantly picked them out of a lineup. They were convicted of first-degree burglary, first-degree kidnapping and rape.

Years later, DNA evidence exonerated the men and their conviction was overturned - but not before Alan had already served 17 ½ years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Arrested for a Crime? We Can Help!

If you were arrested and charged with a crime, it is important to know how the deck may be stacked against you. Confirmation bias is real and can result in time behind bars for a crime you did not commit. To protect your future, you need an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney on your side.

The experienced lawyers at Lewis & Laws, PLLC, have successfully defended clients in Seattle, Bellevue, and Kirkland. Contact us today at 206.209.0608 or fill out our online contact form. We will fight for you every step of the way. Call us today!

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