The Role of the Social Sciences in Preventing Wrongful Convictions

17 Pages Posted: 28 May 2014

See all articles by Jacqueline McMurtrie

Jacqueline McMurtrie

University of Washington - School of Law

Date Written: 2005


Studies of DNA exonerations and other erroneous convictions have validated the research of social scientists, particularly in the areas of mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions and suggestibility of children. Although courts traditionally tended to exclude scientific evidence from expert witnesses in these disciplines — primarily because the basis that the testimony addressed matters within the common understanding of jurors, was confusing, or invaded the province of the jury to make credibility determinations — a new trend is developing. Courts now sometimes acknowledge that the research of social scientists in these areas contains findings that are counter-intuitive and thus that expert testimony can assist the trier of fact.

In this essay, I provide an introduction to the findings of social scientists in the areas of: a) eyewitness identification; b) false confessions; and c) suggestibility of children. For each area, I also discuss efforts to implement reforms based upon the research of social scientists. Any meaningful reform must take place on two fronts. First, it is essential that "obdurate" lawyers and judges address their preconceptions about the social sciences and educate themselves about the findings of applied psychology. Second, and most importantly, systemic change must occur in the way evidence is collected and preserved during the investigation of a case that involves an eyewitness, a child witness, or an interrogation. By incorporating lessons learned from the research of social science, we can improve the administration of justice and guard against conviction of the innocent.

Keywords: expert testimony, expert witnesses, social science, psychology, law and psychology, eyewitness identification, confessions, child witnesses, criminal procedure, criminal investigations

Suggested Citation

McMurtrie, Jacqueline, The Role of the Social Sciences in Preventing Wrongful Convictions (2005). American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 1271-87, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Jacqueline McMurtrie (Contact Author)

University of Washington - School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States


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