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Dangerous Decisions: A Theoretical Framework for Understanding How Judges Assess Credibility in the Courtroom

NCJ Number
Legal and Criminological Psychology Volume: 14 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2009 Pages: 119-134
Stephen Porter; Leanne ten Brinke
Date Published
February 2009
16 pages
This paper critically examines the manner in which judges and juries evaluate witness credibility and is presented in a theoretical framework called dangerous decisions theory (DDT).
In formulating their decisions of guilt and innocence, judges and juries must rely heavily on the evidence provided by witnesses. However, it has become clear that the assessment of witness credibility is a process fraught with error, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s contention that credibility assessment is a matter of common sense. Despite their experience with the task of credibility assessment, trial judges hold false stereotypes about deception and are vulnerable to dangerous biases in evaluation witness evidence. As the dangerous decisions theory (DDT) outlines, this evaluation process may be heavily influenced by perceptions of a defendant’s appearance and demeanor. Unconscious biases may form based on initial evaluations of trustworthiness gleamed from quick glimpse of his/her face. The attitude that assessing credibility is a common sense skill may serve to increase confidence during this process. Education, training, and expert testimony to improve credibility assessment in the courtroom are essential to reduce the problem of unjust convictions. A critical evaluation of the validity of decisions of guilt and innocence in the courtroom can serve to strengthen the legal system’s role as a pillar of society. Numerous wrongful convictions have brought into question the ability of judges and juries to accurately evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including defendants. DDT offers a theoretical framework to build an understanding of the decisonmaking process that can culminate in such injustices. DDT proposed in this paper offers a testable model outlining the psychological processes involved in arriving at an evaluation of credibility. Figure and references


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