Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Policy

Innocent Until Proven Guilty? Well, That Depends

This is the last of eight blog posts written by undergraduates in PSY102: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, Summer Term I 2019.

In the criminal justice system, one might imagine that the more serious a crime is, the more extensive the evidence should be to support the verdict. However, a recent study conducted at Duke University finds that jurors assessment of guilt is less reliant on the type of evidence and more on the severity of the crime.

Mock jurors in the study were more likely to find someone charged with murder guilty than someone charged with robbery.

A still from the movie “Twelve Angry Men” (1954), a tense drama about jury deliberations.

Numerous scholars have looked at how flawed forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identifications and defendants’ prior criminal convictions can introduce errors in criminal prosecutions.

But John Pearson, an assistant professor in four Duke departments including neurobiology, and his colleagues in law wanted to know whether the type of crime can also lead to a greater chance of wrongful conviction. It may be that jurors use moral and emotional responses to various crimes as reasoning for the decisions they make regarding the defendant’s guilt.

The researchers aimed to understand the relationship between crime severity and confidence in guilt by seeing how mock jurors, practicing prosecutors, and other practicing lawyers weigh various types of evidence in order to make a decision on guilt.

John Pearson

Participants in the study were subjected to about 30 crime scenarios, each one paired with a random variety of types of evidence. After participants read through each respective scenario, they rated the strength of the case on a 0-100 scale and their emotional and moral responses.

It appeared that the more threat or outrage they felt toward crime type, the more likely they were to find the defendant guilty.

The authors also tested different types of evidence’s potential interaction with people’s beliefs.

They found that both DNA and non-DNA physical evidence had the highest amount of influence on participants, but the difference between how the participants weighed them was small. The jurors appeared to place very similar, if not the same amount of weight onto these two types of evidence in terms of their confidence.

Pearson refers to juror’s equal weight of DNA and non DNA evidence as the “CSI effect.” But DNA evidence is far more reliable than non DNA evidence. The CSI effect lays out that jurors tend to give more weight to conclusions based on traditional evidence. The study found that no matter one’s position, the pattern of similar weight between the DNA and non DNA evidence was found across all groups. The study also states that “subjects tend to overweight widely used types of forensic evidence, but give much less weight than expected to a defendant’s criminal history.”

Along with finding similar patterns between confidence in guilt and evidence type, researchers also discovered an intense link between the subject’s confidence in guilt with the severity of the crime.

Notably for jurors, crime type highly influenced their perception of confidence in guilt. The study showed a positive correlation between personal, emotional, and moral biases and “adjudicative bias,’ or the likelihood of conviction.

And while jurors did show more of a trend in this finding, practicing lawyers and prosecutors also exhibited a crime-type bias correlation with the seriousness of crime, even though it was much smaller.

The study’s results model how punishment, outrage, and threat are almost entirely dependent on crime effect and crime scenario. This indicates that despite how much evidence was presented, crime type alone influenced jurors decisions to charge someone as guilty of that crime more frequently.

(Bang) Guilty!

This could mean that regardless of how much evidence or what type of evidence is present, innocent people wrongly charged of crimes could more easily be convicted if it is a more severe offense.

These findings indicate how easy it is to reach wrongful convictions of severe crimes within the US criminal justice system.

Guest post by Casey M. Chanler

A How-To Guide for Climate-Proof Cities

Roughly 400 miles separate Memphis and New Orleans. Interstate 55 connects the two cities, snaking south parallel to the Mississippi River. The drive is dull. There are few cars. The trees are endless.

South of the Louisiana border, the land turns flat, low, and wet. The air grows warmer, and heavy with moisture. I-55 cuts through the center of Maurepas Swamp, a 100,000-plus acre tract of protected wetlands. Groves of gumball and oak are rare here—instead, thin swamps of bald cypress and tupelo trees surround the highway on either side. At night, only their skeletal silhouettes are visible. They rise from the low water, briefly illuminated by passing headlights. Even in the dark, the trees are unmistakably dead.

*  *  *

A healthy cypress swamp in Lake Martin, Louisiana (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

Traditionally, Maurepas Swamp serves as a natural barrier against flooding that threatens New Orleans each year. Native flora soaks up the rainfall, spreading it across a network of cypress roots and cattail. But centuries of logging and canal construction have drastically altered the swamp’s ecological composition. The Mississippi levee system compounded the issue, isolating the swamp from vital sources of fresh water and nutrients. Flooded with saltwater, much of the existing cypress withered and died. Young trees, now, are few and scattered. 

Maurepas Swamp highlights the danger of even the most well-intentioned changes to the  environment. This problem is hardly unique to the wetlands. “Many of the issues that we are experiencing today were seen as solutions in the past,” says Nancy Grimm, a professor of ecology at Arizona State University. “What we want to do now is to think about the future, so that the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow.”

Nancy Grimm addresses urban sustainability at the 2019 Henry J. Oosting Memorial Lecture in Ecology. (Source: Nicholas School of the Environment)

Grimm is the co-director of the UREx Sustainability Research Network. UREx aims to climate-proof urban municipalities without sacrificing environmental stability. To do so, UREx has partnered with several cities across the United States and Latin America. Each city hosts a workshop geared towards municipal decision makers, such as government officials,  environmental NGOS, and more. Together, these participants design different “futures” addressing their cities’ most pressing concerns. 

Phoenix, Arizona is one of the nine initial cities partnering with UREx. One of the hottest cities in the United States, Phoenix is already plagued with extreme heat and drought. By 2060, Phoenix is projected to have 132 days above 100°F—a 44 percent increase from data collected in 2010.  

UREx doesn’t dwell too much on these statistics.  “We’re bombarded constantly by dystopian narratives of tomorrow,” says Grimm, with a slight smile. “Instead, what we want to think about are ways we can envision a more positive future.”

The Phoenix workshop produced five distinct visions of what the city could look like in sixty years. Some scenarios are more ambitious than others—“The Right Kind of Green,” for example, imagines a vastly transformed city defined by urban gardens and lush vegetation. But each vision of Phoenix contains a common goal: a greener, cooler city that retains its soul. 

A visualization accompanies each scenario. In one, a family walks about a small orchard. The sky is blue, and the sun is out. But no one seems bothered by the heat. The oranges are vibrant; the trees thick, and full. It’s an idyllic future. But it’s one within grasp.  

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

‘Death is a Social Construct’

Of the few universal human experiences, death remains the least understood. Whether we avoid its mention or can’t stop thinking about it, whether we are terrified or mystified by it, none of us know what death is really like. Turns out, neither do the experts who spend every day around it.

Nobody who sees this guy reports back, so we can only guess.

This was the overarching lesson of Dr. Robert Truog’s McGovern Lecture at Trent Semans Center for Health Education, titled “Defining Death: Persistent Problems and Possible Solutions.”

Dr. Truog is this year’s recipient of the McGovern Prize, an award honoring individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the art and  science of medicine. Truog is a professor of medical ethics, anesthesiology and pediatrics and director of the center for bioethics at Harvard Medical School. He is intimately familiar with death, not only through his research and writings, but through his work as a pediatric intensive care doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Truog is also the author of the current national guidelines for end-of-life care in the intensive care unit.

In short, Truog knows a lot about death. Yet certain questions about the end of life remain elusive even to him. In his talk, he spoke about the biological, sociological, and ethical challenges involved in drawing the boundary between life and death. While some of these challenges have been around for as long as humans have, certain ones are novel, brought on by technological advancements in medicine that allow us to prolong the functioning of vital organs, mainly the brain and the heart.

The “irreversible cessation of function” of these organs results in brain and cardiac death, respectively. When both occur together, the patient is declared biologically dead. When they don’t, such as when all brain function except for those that support the patient’s digestive system is lost, for instance, the patient can be legally alive without any hope of recovery of consciousness.

Robert Truog teaching (Harvard photo)

According to Truog, it is in these moments of life after the loss of almost every brain function that we realize “death is a social construct.” This claim likely sounds counterintuitive, if not entirely nonsensical, as dying is the moment we have the least control over our biology. What Dr. Truog means, however, is that as technology continues to mend failures of biology that would have once been fatal, our social and philosophical understanding of dying, what he calls “person death” will increasingly separate from the end of the body’s biological function.  

Biologically, death is the moment when homeostasis, the body’s internal state of equilibrium including body temperature, pH levels and fluid balance, fails and entropy prevails.

Personhood, however, is not mere homeostasis. Dr. Truog cited Robert Veatch, ethicist at Georgetown University, in defining person death as the “irreversible loss of that which is essentially significant to the nature of man.” For those patients who are kept alive by ventilators and who have no hope of regaining consciousness, that essentially significant nature appears to have been lost.

Nonetheless, for loved ones, signs like spontaneous breathing, which can occur in patients in persistent vegetative state, intuitively feel like signs of life. This intuitive sign of life is what made Jahi McMath’s parents refuse an Oakland California hospital’s declaration that their daughter was dead. A ventilator kept the 13-year-old breathing, even though she had been declared brain-dead. After much conflict, McMath’s parents moved her to a hospital in New Jersey, one of just two states where families can reject brain death if it does not align with their religious beliefs. In the end, McMath had two death certificates that were five years apart.


Muslim cemetery at sunset in Marrakech Morocco.
(Mohamed Boualam via Wikimedia commons)

The emotional toll of such an ordeal is immense, as the media outcry around McMath made more than clear. There are more concrete, quantifiable costs to extending biological function beyond the end of personhood: the U.S. is facing an organ shortage. As people are kept on life support for longer periods, it is going to become increasingly difficult for patients who desperately need organs to find donors.

In closing, Dr. Truog reminded us that “in the spectrum between alive and dead, we set the threshold… Death is not a binary state, but a complex social choice.” People will likely continue to disagree about where we should set the threshold, especially as technology develops.

However, if we want to have a thoughtful discussion that respects the rights, wishes, and values of patients, loved ones, and everybody else who will one day face death, we need to first agree that there is a choice to be made.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk, Science & Society graduate student

Meet the Researcher Who Changed How We Care for Rape Survivors

One of the first things I was told during freshman orientation was that two out of every five young women at Duke experience some form of sexual assault during their four years as an undergraduate. Shortly after that, I was informed that as a Duke student, I was not allowed to protect myself with pepper spray, because it is banned by university policy.

At the 2019 Harriet Cook Carter Lecture, Ann Burgess, a professor of psychiatric mental health nursing at Boston College, reported that 25 to 30 percent of women and 10 percent of men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, statistics that make our campus standard of 40 percent seem strikingly high in comparison. Burgess has devoted her life to the support of sexual assault survivors, and pioneered treatments for victims of such abuse. For the past fifty years, she has studied the traumatic effects of rape and violence on patients of all ages, and worked closely with the FBI Academy to research the underlying causes of such crimes. Her work at the FBI was so impactful, Netflix decided to write a TV series about her, a crime drama called “Mindhunter.” Talk about a powerful woman.

Ann Wolbert Burgess, DSNc, APRN, BC, FAAN (Photo from Duke University School of Nursing)

When she began her work with rape survivors in the 1970s, the world was a very different place. Public attitudes towards sexual assault were unsupportive and disapproving of victims. Rape thrived on prudery, silence, and misunderstanding. There were very few reported cases, low conviction rates of criminals, and plenty of victim blaming. “We just didn’t talk about these kinds of things,” Burgess recalled. “There was no public recognition.”

So have we advanced? Yes, absolutely. Throughout the years, Burgess says she has seen a crucial shift towards more support for survivors. She has helped the FBI develop better systems for criminal profiling, and testified countless times in court to ensure justice for survivors of all ages. Burgess has witnessed these court cases changing policies, and affecting the genesis of laws that will better protect citizens against rape and other violent crimes. She has studied lasting trauma in survivors, and used this research to implement new culturally and developmentally appropriate services for victims. She believes that, as a society, we are doing a much better job today to reduce stigma and support survivors, but that the work is not even close to finished.

Sexual assault is still an intensely pervasive issue in society. Rape can happen anywhere, to anyone, and Burgess thinks it all boils down to the cultural emphasis on aggression. “We’ve all become complacent to the violence in the world that we live in,” as panelist Lynden Harris put it. As a society, we perpetuate aggressive masculinity, often without even realizing it. And especially in communities like the military, where women and men alike are highly regulated and taught to avoid showing weakness at all costs, the stigma surrounding sexual assault is intense. Commander Alana Burden-Huber, director of public health services at the Cherry Point Naval Health Clinic, shared her perspective that it can be very difficult to come forward in such a world of conformity. She also mentioned that female jurors in sexual assault cases tend to be much harsher on female survivors than male jurors, and attributes this to the fact that female members of the military are constantly trying to be harder and more stoic, so as to parallel military men.

Mindy Oshrain and Ann Burgess listen intently to the contributions of other panelists

Panelist Mindy Oshrain, a consulting associate in the Duke Department of Psychiatry, quieted the crowd by sharing a moving quote from Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” She reminded us that it is so important to listen to patients, and slow down enough to ask someone multiple times if they are doing okay. It is easy to forget this at a place like Duke, where we are all constantly moving 100 miles a minute, checking boxes as we rush from one activity to the next, but it can make all the difference to stop, and take the time to ask again- How are you really doing? What can I do to support you? Empathy has the power to change the world.

As a sophomore, I now live in a building full of young women on the edge of Central Campus, on a street that is only serviced by Duke transportation in one direction. Just a few months ago, I woke up to a Duke Alert message on my phone, which informed me that a violent rape crime had occurred in the night, just fifty yards from my apartment. While we may have come a long way since the 1970s, the unavoidable fact remains that as young women living in this world, we are not safe. Let’s change that.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

When policy changes opportunities — intentionally and unintentionally

Assistant professor Deondra Rose researches the intersection between political history and policymaking. Photo from Duke Sanford School of Public Policy.

The intent of the National Defense of Education Act in 1958 was not to expand the rights for women in higher education. But it happened.

That’s something Duke Sanford assistant professor Deondra Rose called “accidental egalitarianism” in her talk at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Jan. 29. Rose discussed citizenship from the lens of historical policy research.

During the 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States were in fierce competition to be the first country in space. This was the push the US government needed to start putting more funding towards higher education for a greater subset of the population. The 1944 GI Bill was the beginning of government-funded need-based financial aid for higher education, but until this point, aid had only been given to white men.

In Congress at this time, southern Democrats did not want to pass any legislation that would affect segregation, but at the same time, policymakers also needed to produce a policy that would be approved by northerners, who would not pass any policy that appeared discriminatory. They made the wording of the National Defense of Education Act intentionally vague to please both sides, and as a result it greatly expanded provisions for scholarships and loans to all kinds of students in higher education.

Much of professor Rose’s talk, entitled “Citizens by Degree” after her book, was centered around breaking down the idea of citizenship into different degrees of afforded opportunities. “First class citizens” — usually white Americans — are generally afforded all of the rights that come with being an American citizen without opposition, she said. Second class citizens, usually minorities and women, can miss out on opportunities for advancement afforded to others because of their minority status.

Rose also discussed how we can re-define the implications of certain terms such as “welfare state” to be used positively. Government assistance is not simply temporary assistance to new families, families with children or food stamps, but also includes Pell Grants and need-based financial aid. Similarly, “regulation” sometimes carries negative connotations, but Title IX can be thought of “regulation” that ensures women equal access in higher education.

Photo from Annual White House Summit on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (whitehouse.gov).

Rose’s latest research focuses on the relationship between policy, citizenship and education, and her next book is about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In her political history research, she found that Title III is all about HBCUs, and the wording of the act suggests we as a nation ought to support and prize these institutions.

Rose wants to learn more about the role the US government has played in empowering HBCUs, and the role of HBCUs in restructuring political power — for example, 60 percent of black judges in the US have at least one degree from an HBCU.

At one point in history, the obstacle to higher education for second class citizens was access, then affordability, but have those two obstacles been completely overcome? What are new obstacles to higher education?

Rose believes that policies have the power to reshape politics by reshaping citizens, and we must keep finding and tackling obstacles to higher education.

By Victoria Priester

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