Skip to content

Cognitive Biases…is what ails Joan Wheeler!

by on September 3, 2011

Cognitive Biases…is what ails Joan Wheeler!

An article written by Jennifer L. Mnookin: The ‘West Memphis Three’ and combating cognitive biases….Pioneer Press Updated: 08/26/2011

Gert’s note: after this article I shall present my observations about cognitive biases. Within this article I shall place blocks of text in italic that I shall use for my observations, following the article….

Last week, the “West Memphis Three” were released from prison, having spent half their lives – 18 years – behind bars for crimes they almost certainly didn’t commit. So what made prosecutors and investigators sure they had the right guys, and why were those beliefs, once established, so hard to reverse?

 The crimes for which the three Memphis men were convicted were brutal. Three 8-year-old Cub Scouts were found dead, hogtied and apparently mutilated. The police decided early on that it was likely the boys had been victims of a satanic cult killing, which led them to consider self-described Wiccan teen Damien Echols, a young man with asymmetric black hair, a pale face and oddball taste in clothes and music. They hauled in an acquaintance of his, a minor named Jessie Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, and interviewed him for hours without his parents or an attorney present. Finally, he confessed, implicating Echols and another friend, Jason Baldwin.

 The confession confirmed what police expected to hear – that Echols was involved – which may be why they accepted it at face value. But Misskelley’s account contradicted the evidence in multiple ways. The time he initially gave for the murders was noon, an hour for which the other teens had an ironclad alibi (they were in school); he said that the other suspects raped the boys, but the medical evidence showed no physical trauma consistent with rape and no semen was found in any body cavity; he said the boys were tied up with a brown rope, when they were actually found tied with their own shoestrings.

 An overarching problem, which this case illustrates perfectly, is that humans have a tendency to see what they expect to see. Much psychological research shows that people are subject to an array of “cognitive biases” that affect their evaluation of evidence, and prosecutors and sworn officers are by no means immune to the phenomenon.

 Investigators and prosecutors, even when they are trying their best to do their jobs, may seek out or take special notice of evidence that confirms their prior beliefs rather than evidence that challenges it. And they are likely to interpret ambiguous evidence in ways that accord with their preconceptions.

 Misskelley promptly recanted his confession. But prosecutors nonetheless pressed the case, and he and the others were ultimately convicted. The prosecutor’s case was based largely on character assassination, innuendo and the not-very-credible testimony of the likes of a jailhouse snitch and a witness with a mail-order doctorate. Not a shred of physical evidence linked any of the young men to the crime scene (and post-conviction DNA testing has also failed to find any biological evidence that they were there). Echols received the death penalty, the others life sentences.

 That’s how things might have ended if two documentary filmmakers hadn’t ventured to Arkansas to make a film about the case. Initially they thought they would be examining a sensational satanic cult killing. But the more research they did, the more they began to doubt that it was a cult killing and that the men who were convicted were the perpetrators. Their film suggested the defendants had been railroaded, and it led to widespread publicity and higher-powered legal representation.

 But nothing happened quickly. The film came out almost 15 years ago. Even now, to win freedom, the three men agreed to Alford pleas, whereby they proclaimed their innocence but formally pleaded guilty nonetheless. The case demonstrates the need for criminal justice and evidentiary reforms that would make wrongful convictions less common on the front end. Although releasing some fraction of those wrongfully convicted afterward is all to the good, it would be even better if there were fewer of them in the first place. So what produces wrongful convictions? At least three of the often-seen causes were present here: dubious forensic science evidence, false confessions and evidence from unreliable jailhouse informants who often have a strong incentive to tell law enforcers what they want to hear.

 Cognitive bias helps explain why prosecutors can focus on a suspect (or three) and fail to see the warning signs that they are headed down the wrong path. Cognitive bias is not the same thing as racial bias or personal animus. It’s the habit of our brains to let the first fact we encounter guide our evaluation of the second and the third. One false start can lead to a miscarriage of justice more quickly than any of us would like to believe.

 In this case, once the cops saw Echols as something of a freak, an odd duck who read about witchcraft, liked Metallica and didn’t exactly fit in, the jump from weirdo to likely satanic cult killer was easier than it should have been. Facts that didn’t really prove anything were lumped together with suspicions and dubious theories. We can’t eliminate cognitive biases altogether; they’re part of how we think. But we can design procedures to reduce their effects on investigators, prosecutors and even jurors. Police departments and prosecutors can and should implement mechanisms explicitly designed to combat it. For example, in every major case, an investigator or prosecutor with no prior involvement could be asked to review the evidence and assess its strengths and weaknesses. Even better would be if this reviewer weren’t expected to provide a “neutral” review but instead were assigned the role of devil’s advocate, explicitly asked to find the flaws in the prosecutors’ theory. In this case, the filmmakers played an equivalent role, but most defendants aren’t so lucky.

 If this high-profile release helps spur thoughtful attention to the problems of combating cognitive bias in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, then some good could still come out of a terrible wrong. Bad convictions harm everyone. Not only do they put innocent people behind bars; they also leave actual criminals – in this case a child murderer – on the streets.

Jennifer L. Mnookin is a professor at UCLA Law School. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Now for Gert’s observations…

An overarching problem, which this case illustrates perfectly, is that humans have a tendency to see what they expect to see. Much psychological research shows that people are subject to an array of “cognitive biases” that affect their evaluation of evidence, and prosecutors and sworn officers are by no means immune to the phenomenon.

To see what they expect to see…this is very common in Joan Wheeler’s ‘thinking! She always has a cognitive bias about everyone and everything because, in her mind, she is right and therefore can not comprehend that a thing/person is anything other than what her bias thinking says it is. She has no room for true facts. Where it started with and in Joan, who’s to say, it’s not in her genes as much as in the way she was raised. Her biases, like everyone’s, are learned. But Joan compounds things because she is constantly being the judge, jury and executioner. She decides, she judges and she deems what she will and the truth be damned.

 Investigators and prosecutors, even when they are trying their best to do their jobs, may seek out or take special notice of evidence that confirms their prior beliefs rather than evidence that challenges it. And they are likely to interpret ambiguous evidence in ways that accord with their preconceptions.

Evidence that confirms their prior beliefs… Religious zealots do this all the time. In fact Joan is a crusader for adoption reform and she doesn’t care how many infidels and/or others that stand in her way… she will just ran them over or kill her opponents anyway she can. If you doubt this, take a close look at her statements on the Adult Adoptees Advocating for Change, many of which we are hoping to get up right here on this blog. Joan has no real way of knowing (read skill) about ambiguity…she can’t understand the sublime or the grays.  

The prosecutor’s case was based largely on character assassination, innuendo and the not-very-credible testimony of the likes of a jailhouse snitch and a witness with a mail-order doctorate.

Character assassination, innuendo and the not-very-credible testimony… Everywhere in Joan’s mind, life, story-line, pulled lying book, every utterance, is covered with character assassination in mind. She doesn’t care that what she says harms another. It’s all about her view! Innuendo! I see so much of that in her writings! She’s good at it! Hey, I didn’t work for the military for 17 years without learning a few things myself! And her testimony doesn’t even come close to credible! How could she possible KNOW what’s in another’s mind! Listening/reading to what Joan says about another you would think that she has a seat right there in that person’s head! That is very much not-very-credible testimony!

Cognitive bias helps explain why prosecutors can focus on a suspect (or three) and fail to see the warning signs that they are headed down the wrong path. Cognitive bias is not the same thing as racial bias or personal animus. It’s the habit of our brains to let the first fact we encounter guide our evaluation of the second and the third. One false start can lead to a miscarriage of justice more quickly than any of us would like to believe.

Headed down the wrong path…Joan is clever, she can speak with another quite convincingly and get them to agree with her whole hardily and all the while without leaving any warning signs to what she really is about or after. It is only after you have been conned, lied to, been stolen from (in tangible and intangible ways), been betrayed and more before you see the real Joan behind that curtain. And when you stand up to her…watch out for she goes for your jugular! 

One false start can lead to a miscarriage of justice...and boy do the birth siblings of Joan know all about that. It is OUR reputations and honor that WE have to restore because Joan slandered and libeled and made a mockery of us and then it is left to us to prove we have been the victims of Joan.

Facts that didn’t really prove anything were lumped together with suspicions and dubious theories. We can’t eliminate cognitive biases altogether; they’re part of how we think. But we can design procedures to reduce their effects on investigators, prosecutors and even jurors. Police departments and prosecutors can and should implement mechanisms explicitly designed to combat it.

They’re part of how we think….but…we can be aware of them and we can change them. We can ask the really tough questions, like name your sources, show me your evidence, do your own homework, research and fact-finding, recognize junk science when it appears, talk to the people in question and most important turn off your own cognitive biases! Be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

If this high-profile release helps spur thoughtful attention to the problems of combating cognitive bias in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, then some good could still come out of a terrible wrong. Bad convictions harm everyone. Not only do they put innocent people behind bars; they also leave actual criminals – in this case a child murderer – on the streets.

Bad convictions harm everyone….and the only justice we can guarantee ourselves is that we must be fully aware of the words and deeds of ourselves and others. No one wants to have their character and honor sullied, but once it is you must take action. This is why we are refuting and reclaiming what Joan Wheeler stole from us…because she is the real criminal. If you don’t want to be a victim of Joan Wheeler take notice of what we say.

As a parting thought: we of the general population get our news 24/7 and we no longer use our thinking brains…we look for those stories or news channels and commentators that will affirm our already preconceived notions of how something looks or happened. We prejudge without knowing all the facts and we never go looking up the facts, we take too much on face value. I think it’s time to jump-start your brains!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: