Trial By Profile

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3435027358_06a8a80331.jpg"Annie Le Was on Fast Track, Suspect Ray Clark Cleaned Cages; Did Worlds Collide?" That's the headline of abcnews.com in the recent Yale tragedy. A prominent criminologist is quoted as saying that the accused:

worked in an Ivy League school where most of his co-workers were potentially successful and had advanced degrees and were looking forward to a fulfilling and happy life, he was cleaning cages.

Therefore, if  the accused is guilty, "relative deprivation" might have been the motive. And of course that's literally true as a doubly conditional statement. But does even scrupulous speculation serve justice? There are three good reasons for professionals to think twice before pretrial comment in the media.

First, they haven't seen the evidence. In 1964, psychiatrists were all too willing to pronounce on Barry Goldwater's mental health and fitness for office for Fact magazine without ever having met him, leading to the historic libel trial, Goldwater v. Ginsburg.

Second, the state of expert testimony, even when presented in court, is in urgent need of reform, according to a recent report of the National Academy of Sciences. As its press release states:

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization -- in other words, to "match" a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source.  But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source. 

This report does not cover psychological profiling, But a separate article in the New Yorker on the Cameron Todd Willingham case presents strong evidence that testimony by a prosecution psychiatrist as well as erroneous arson analysis helped condemn an innocent man.

Third, repeated psychological studies of both actual trials and moot courts suggest, as one paper from 2004 puts it: "Prejudicial pretrial publicity (PTP) constitutes a serious source of juror bias." It's time for journalists and scientists alike to reconsider how they present criminal cases. Framing even a hypothetical question may unintentionally help frame a real defendant.

Historical note: The biggest Ivy League medical school murder case of all involved an upper-class but financially troubled Harvard professor who was executed for killing a wealthy fellow Brahmin doctor (and slumlord). The historian Simon Schama, who wrote a novel about the events, observed of the school janitor who was the key prosecution witness that he was "condemned to be polite to those who were keeping him in his place." While some local historians still suspect the janitor, he collected a handsome reward for his role and retired.

The "relatively deprived," it seems, could be and can be almost any one of us.

(Photo: Flickr User [puamelia])

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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