Expert on forensic science methods speaks at Wrongful Conviction Series event
By Kevinisha Walker
As part of the Wrongful Convictions Distinguished Speaker Series, David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, spoke last week about flaws in police procedures and interrogation techniques among law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Harris is the second fall speaker in Roosevelt University’s speaker series.
Harris spoke about his book “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science” during the event in the Gage Gallery.
The law professor’s book was published last year, but after hearing about the university’s speaker series, he expressed interest in speaking at the event.
“Professor Harris expressed an interest in speaking in our series, and given the relevance of his latest book … it made perfect sense to include [him],” said Shari Berkowitz, psychology professor and co-founder of the speaker series.
In the book, Harris examines problems with police procedures, intimidating interrogation practices and improper forensic testing methods.
Some argue that Harris makes the claim that law enforcement agencies reject forensic science.
“[The book] is a masterful expose of both the flaws in our criminal justice system and the reasons many police and prosecutors are unwilling to correct them,” said Christopher Slobogin, chair of Vanderbilt University’s Criminal Justice program. “Its prescriptions, all based on the latest scientific findings, would go a long way toward eliminating wrongful convictions and ensuring accurate verdicts.”
Since faulty eyewitness identifications are present in almost 75 percent of all wrongful convictions, Harris argues that law enforcement agencies can fix many of those mistakes with a couple of changes.
Currently, police officers and investigators employ simultaneous lineups — “a process that allows witnesses to see all the people at once, lined up together,” Harris said.
Instead, Harris said that “we should move away from simultaneous lineups and move toward sequential lineups, where witnesses see one person at a time.”
He also suggested that the police force should utilize blind lineups, in which the person conducting the lineup doesn’t know which person in the lineup is the person who police suspect.
“These two changes, alone, would be enough to make the work of police more accurate,” Harris said. “The science points us to better, more accurate results.”
Prior to his book’s publishing, Harris did extensive research on the findings of experimental psychologists on interrogations and eyewitness identifications.
He also studied the work of the National Academies of Sciences on forensic methods.
Even with all the research and work he’s done, Harris said most police departments and prosecutors’ offices are reluctant to apply those forensic methods.
“They feel they know how to do what they do, and many don’t like outsiders telling them they have to change,” Harris said.
The “Failed Evidence” author also said that he explores law enforcement agencies’ reluctance to using forensic methods in the book.
Cognitive barriers—“things like cognitive dissonance and loss aversion”—also contribute to their unwillingness.
He said that institutional barriers, the occupational imperatives of arrests and convictions, contribute to their reluctance as well.
Harris has spoken about his book in New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. and now Chicago.
“Failed Evidence” is only his second book, but he’s done work on racial profiling since the mid 1990s.
“The best thing about my professional life is that I have had the privilege to devote myself to justice through these issues,” Harris said. “It is a rare privilege.”