UCI alumna Erin Morris, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology & social behavior in 2006, is the subject of UCI associate professor of literary journalism Erika Hayasaki’s story “The Investigator,” published in the Dec. 1 issue of The California Sunday Magazine. The Los Angeles County public defender’s office created the position of behavioral sciences research analyst for Morris in 2007. It’s her job to keep on top of the latest academic literature on forensic evidence and determine which studies and theories are valid. She then confers with the attorneys on how to best pursue or challenge a line of inquiry based on what is “scientifically defensible” about the evidence. The use of forensic evidence in the criminal justice system is undergoing a radical shift. What was once considered to be incontrovertible evidence – such as bite marks, eyewitness accounts, expert testimony and even fingerprints – has come under intense scrutiny and has, many times, proved faulty. According to the Innocence Project, more than 340 defendants since 1989 who were convicted on the basis of flawed forensic evidence were later exonerated through DNA analysis, and in September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology released a report questioning many of the methods used by law enforcement and prosecutors. This is where Morris comes in and why her role is so crucial. She estimates that she has consulted on more than 200 cases, including one that relied on work she had done while at UCI, where she studied under Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of psychology & social behavior and professor of law, and William Thompson, professor of criminology, law & society. The defendant, charged with assaulting a group of high schoolers, had been identified by one of them as the attacker. Drawing on the latest research on eyewitness testimony, Morris advised the public defender of its many flaws – that head injuries often affect memory and how easy it is to confuse people wearing similar clothing. The jury acquitted him.
Photo Credit: Dru Donovan, visiting lecturer at Harvard University