April 02, 2014 Articles

Fundamentally Wrong: The Consequences of Prosecutorial Cognitive Error

Cognitive shortcuts can lead to wrongful convictions.

By Emily M. Smith

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, a man convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of a heinous murder: death by arson of his three young daughters. Absent an obvious motive for the crime, Willingham’s prosecutor John Jackson convinced himself and a jury that these murders were Willingham’s “crowning achievement.” According to the prosecutor, Willingham was simply “an utterly sociopathic individual” who considered his children “an impediment to his lifestyle.”

Except Willingham was not a sociopath, nor was this murder. As numerous world-renowned arson investigators and a forensic commission convened by the Texas state government concluded post-conviction, the fire was an accident. Tex. Forensic Sci. Comm’n, Willingham/Willis Investigation (2011). Sadly, this conclusion came too late for Willingham; Texas had already executed an innocent man.

Prosecutors such as John Jackson are frequently criticized for these wrongful convictions. After all, they brought the initial charges, and they advocated for guilt. Their work is rarely questioned before and during trial. They enjoy broad responsibility, discretion, and deference. With so much power, some prosecutors misuse their positions, and as a result, innocent individuals are put behind bars.

But this does not explain every wrongful conviction. There is often a more complex explanation: shortcuts in the prosecutor’s cognitive processes, which can warp his or her analysis of a criminal case. These involuntary cognitive shortcuts prevent a prosecutor from fully appreciating the complexity and relevance of the available evidence, and can lead him or her to believe erroneously in the accused’s guilt. In short, mental time-savers can play a significant part in the failure of justice.

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