Juries that don’t understand forensic science can send innocent people to prison − a short training video could help
Ledura Watkins was 19 years old when he was accused of murdering a public school teacher. At trial, a forensic expert testified that a single hair found at the scene was similar to Watkins’ and stated his conclusion was based on “reasonable scientific certainty.” He explained that he’d conducted thousands of hair analyses and “had never been wrong.”
This one hair was the only physical evidence tying Watkins to the crime. In 1976, Ledura Watkins was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Researchers have long suggested that part of the problem is the way forensic evidence is presented in courtrooms. In response to calls by scientists, the U.S. Department of Justice approved the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports in 2018. These guidelines aimed to lessen misleading statements in forensic testimony and outlined five statements forensic experts should not make. The expert in Ledura Watkins’ case made several of these statements, including claiming that his examination was perfect because of the number of examinations he had conducted.
It’s understandable that jurors are swayed by an expert who uses terms like “error free,” “perfect” or “scientific certainty.” We are interested in finding ways to help people critically evaluate the forensic testimony they hear in court.
An informational video for jurors
Inspired by one court’s use of videos to help train jurors on relevant concepts, our team developed what we call the forensic science informational video. It’s about 4½ minutes long and focuses on latent print examinations, including fingerprints, footwear…