How “Cognitive Bias” Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

Last week in an op-ed appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Jennifer L. Mnookin, Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, argued that “cognitive bias” may have been influential in the recent West Memphis Three case.

In answering the question of why reversing these types of convictions proves to be so difficult, Mnookin suggested that cognitive bias, the human psychological “tendency to see what they expect to see,” affects the ability of those in the case to evaluate evidence in a disinterested manner. Mnookin distinguishes cognitive bias from other tendencies such as racial bias or personal animosity as “the habit of our brains to let the first fact we encounter guide our evaluation of the second and the third.”

In her evaluation of the case, Mnookin pointed to the early expectation of investigators that the murders were committed by members of a satanic killing cult. This first key assumption lead to the interrogation of Jessie Misskelley in order to connect Damien Echols, self-described Wiccan, who matched the preconceived profile. As investigators moved along with the case, inconsistencies in the evidence were explained away or ignored in light of these preconceived conclusions about the suspects. In other words, once the early profile was conceived, “the jump from weirdo to likely satanic cult killer was easier than it should have been.”

No doubt the task of  police and investigators is extremely demanding, both physically and emotionally, especially in cases with extreme circumstances. Tensions run high, and the demand for justice in the form of a conviction is high.

But without substantial checks on cognitive bias in place, incorrect preconceptions may produce wrongful convictions and capital punishment for innocent women and men. As Mnookin makes clear, cognitive bias is an impediment to even-handed justice and partially contributed to the near-death of Mr. Echols. The irreversibility of the death penalty becomes more and more problematic considering the inherent possibility of cognitive bias and human error influencing the quality of justice.

Photo courtesy of Steve Hebert for The New York Times

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