Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Notable innocence research: 'Camera perspective bias' makes defendants' confessions look more voluntary

Every Hollywood director knows that editing makes or breaks a movie. The ability to frame what the audience sees, to exclude what the editor doesn't want them to see, to focus their attention where you choose, in other words, to manipulate the audience's perspective, is the most powerful tool in the videographer's arsenal.

As it turns out, the same is true in the nonfiction realm. According to this article I found through the blog The Truth About False Confessions, a "camera perspective bias" causes viewers to be more likely to accept a confession's "voluntariness" when the camera is focused solely on the defendant. ("Videotaped confessions create bias against the suspect," Science Daily, March 15, 2007). When the questioning officer's reactions were captured, the perception of voluntariness declined, even when police officers and judges were the ones assessing the videos. According to this research:
In more than 25 percent of wrongful convictions exonerated by DNA testing, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty, according to the Innocence Project. Police interrogation tactics – which include exaggerating the evidence against the suspect or implying the suspect could face an extreme sentence – can prompt a suspect to make a false confession, said Daniel Lassiter, an Ohio University professor of psychology.

In videotaped confessions, many law enforcement agencies focus the camera on only the suspect. Lassiter’s research shows that this practice creates what he calls a camera-perspective bias that leads trial participants to view the confessions as voluntary, regardless of how interrogators obtained them.

In the recent study, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, Lassiter and colleagues from Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation asked 21 judges and 24 law-enforcement officers to view a videotaped mock confession. The researchers presented participants with different versions of the confession in which the camera focused on only the suspect, only the detective, or both suspect and detective. Participants assessed how voluntarily the suspect confessed in each case.

The study found that judges and law enforcement officers considered the suspect-focus version of the confession to be more voluntary than the equal-focus and detective-focus versions.

“The phenomenon (camera-perspective bias) is rooted in a naturally occurring perceptual bias that affects everyone and which cannot be readily overcome regardless of people’s expertise or the amount of professional training they have received,” Lassiter said.

So what's the best way to reduce bias? Clearly it sounds like two cameras are better than one, but one is still better than none. Right now most Texas departments don't record confessions at all, which probably contributes even more to police "exaggerating the evidence against the suspect or implying the suspect could face an extreme sentence."

I've never heard of a department that even bothers to record the questioning officer during interrogations. Perhaps they should start. In any event, this research shows videotaping interrogations by itself isn't a panacea. Natural biases we're hardly aware of influence how people view images on the screen. Hollywood filmmakers know this, and apparently criminal justice researchers are beginning to learn it, too.


JT Barrie said...

Obviously you haven't seen any cop series on TV lately. In The Closer Kyra Sedgwick gets confessions all the time by making up charges and evidence to get confessions. This is considered clever and good police tactics according to the producers. It gets the public sympathetic with subterfuge and outright lies by police to "get the bad guys". In cop shows it's all about the ends justifying the means. Having cartoon style bad guys doesn't help either. Getting the public upset about lying and bending the crap out of due process and the rule of law is a hard sell with Hollywood liberals depicting immorality as glamorous all the time.

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