Toward a More People-Centered System of Justice: A New Framework for Examining Wrongful Convictions

By Wells, Gary L. | Judicature, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Toward a More People-Centered System of Justice: A New Framework for Examining Wrongful Convictions


Wells, Gary L., Judicature


Toward a more people-centered system of justice: a new framework for examining wrongful convictions In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process, by Dan Simon. Harvard University Press. 2012.416 pp.

The other day I cleared my desk of a stack of recent books on convictions of the innocent. The stack had reached the point that I feared even the slightest bump might send the books tumbling down on an innocent visitor. So the books went onto the shelves, joining a trove of such books published in recent years with titles such as Convicting of the Innocent, Wrongful Conviction, False justice, and others. Yet even among this plethora of titles, one stood out: Dan Simon's In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process.

Like most of the other books in this genre, In Doubt makes some use of actual cases of exoneration (e.g., DNA - based exonerations of Ronald Cotton, Kirk Bloodsworth, and others) to bring home the reality that innocent people are convicted and to concretely illustrate key points, such as the way that one inculpating piece of evidence can make the entire set of evidence appear inculpating or how investigators prematurely stop looking for more evidence after finding what seems to be support for the leading hypothesis. But Simon's book also stands out from the others in an important way: it comes much closer to articulating a conceptual framework, drawing together what might otherwise be thought of as a series of somewhat unrelated observations about problems that lead to convictions of the innocent. This conceptual framework revolves largely around the idea that "Criminal verdicts can be no better than the combined result of mental operations of the people involved in the process" (p.2). The result is a beautiful yet powerful treatise on how social and cognitive science can explain processes that lead to wrongful conviction - as well as ways to solve this pressing problem.

A professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Southern California, Simon earned his LLB from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from INSEAD in France. He was an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where he worked on civil rights for Palestinians in the West Bank and delivered arguments before the Israeli Supreme Court. He earned his SJD (Doctor of Judicial Science) from Harvard University in 1997 and has been on the law faculty at USC since 1999. In addition to his illustrious legal background, Simon has made substantial contributions to cognitive and experimental social psychology with his theoretical and empirical work on cognitive consistency, decision making, and cognitive coherence: on top of publishing law review articles, he has also managed to publish experimental studies in esteemed peer-reviewed journals, including Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. It is within his well-honed experimental and theoretical framework (especially his conceptualization of "cognitive coherence") that Simon draws his insights and weaves together a unique and worthy treatment of the problem of errors in the criminal justice system.

In the book's eight relatively short chapters, Simon covers a lot of ground, ranging from the cognitive dynamics of investigation to human memory errors, problems in interrogation, and the manifestation of problems in the courtroom, yet the pages go by quickly due to his insightful and effective prose. From the perspective of scholars, the real meat is in the 161 pages of endnotes that involve extensive citations to back up nearly every observation contained in the text. The vast majority of these citations are to original peer-reviewed articles published on cognitive psychology, social psychology, and decision making. Altogether, there are 1,428 footnotes containing citations and commentary.

Following the introductory chapter, which covers both what will be discussed as well as mentions some of the areas not covered (e. …

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