All students enrolled in Psychology 106, Forensic Science, will write an essay that reviews a technique of criminalistics and/or forensic psychology issue, and applies it to one or more criminal cases (I will consider civil cases, but bear in mind that there may be less documentation or less rigorous methods used to obtain the evidence). This document details the requirements of the essay.
This essay requires some specific sections. These will not only ensure a better grade, but will also help you to organize your paper.
Broadly, the essay should have these sections:
- Introduction. The opening paragraph should briefly introduce the forensic science that you will be discussing, and mention the case to which you will apply the science. The next several paragraphs should then teach the reader all about the forensic technique. As a general approach, the paper will be much stronger if you focus on the forensic science, rather than the case(s) you chose. Demonstrate your knowledge of the forensic technique, and then use the case to support what you wrote about the technique.
- Application. The middle section should specify how the relevant forensic science techniques were applied or misapplied in the case you cover, and what the consequences were. Note here that you will want to write about the science, using the case to support your argument. Do not talk about the case and add in little tidbits about forensic science.
For example, a poorly written essay might have a sentence like, “O.J. Simpson’s trial included a lot of forensic science, like blood spatter, DNA, and trace evidence.” A well- written essay would focus on one or two of these; “DNA evidence was an important component in O.J. Simpson’s trial, in that it indisputably placed him at the scene of the crime…” A reasonable rule of thumb is to keep the forensic technique as the subject of the sentence, and the case as the direct or indirect object.
- Conclusion. The essay should close with a broad summary of the forensic science as it was applied in the current case, and then focus on current trends or future solutions that could improve the forensic technique, education for jurors on how to evaluate forensic science, and so on.
- References. This section is critical. You must cite a minimum of three sources from which you obtained your information. You will probably cite the textbook as one of
them. These must be cited in the essay body as well, so that you cannot be accused of plagiarism.
Half of the point of this assignment is to demonstrate how well you understand one or two forensic techniques/issues. For that reason, I highly recommend narrowing your topic to one or two techniques and then choosing appropriate cases to support your review of the technique/issue.
Good method: I am interested in insanity. Excellent cases to support what I want to write about are John Hinckley, Jr., and Andrea Yates.
Poor method: I am really interested in the Steven Avery case, so let’s see if I can find some forensic topic in there to write about.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of cases that would likely be appropriate for most techniques we cover in this course, but remember the following:
Timing. Newer techniques, such as many computer techniques, have probably been used less frequently than older techniques, such as fingerprinting. Also please bear the timing of the case in mind. Cases currently underway are not as likely to have forensic information publicized. Try to find cases whose outcomes are already known, and for which you can access details of the forensic science that was applied.
Focus. In any given criminal case, there are likely multiple forensic techniques applied. Choose a case that has a focal technique or issue. For example, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby included handwriting analysis, wood pattern analysis, and tool imprint analysis, among many others. Do not try to cover all three.
Many papers in the past have received poor grades because they wasted space and lost focus writing on irrelevant details. If your essay topic is interrogation techniques, there is no need to spend a paragraph writing about how gruesome the crime scene was. You are not writing a screenplay, you are writing an essay.
When searching for cases that exemplify certain techniques, you might consider books
Steadman, D. W. (2008). Hard evidence: Case studies in forensic anthropology.
Rao, K. N. (2012). Forensic toxicology: Medico-legal case studies.
Loue, S. (2013). Case studies in forensic epidemiology.
…and many others.
Notice that we do not focus on these topics in the course, but they are still important to forensic science. If you choose a topic that is not covered in the course, I will grade a little more leniently, taking into account the fact that you did more effort to become familiar with the topic. However, if you choose to apply forensic science that is covered in the course, I will focus mostly on your ability to correctly describe the technique and apply it to the case.
I also recommend watching a few episodes of the series, Forensic Files, as each episode generally has a focal forensic technique, and many full episodes are publicly available for viewing. However, if you use a case from an episode, make sure to also use multiple resources to gather more information on the case. Do not simply recount the information given in the episode (I have seen most of them and will probably recognize if you have not done additional research).
There are several standard writing styles which specify things like acceptable font, font size, page margins, and so on within academic writing. Psychology uses the American Psychological Association (APA) format. This is the preferred format for course essays, but if your major uses another style (e.g., Chicago, MLA, etc.), please make a note of that in the title or after the title in parentheses and follow that style. You may find specifics about APA format at these websites:
or you may consult the publication manual:
American Psychological Association. (2019). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Additionally, I have prepared an MS Word document that is already set up in the appropriate format (available on Blackboard). You may use that as a template, but please use headers appropriate to your essay. The template is for formatting issues only.
Your essay must be a minimum of four full pages of 12-point Times New Roman or Arial font text, double spaced (approximately 1400 words), with 1” margins on all sides. That is, if you have a page with the title only, and a page with references only, then your document should be six pages total. If your essay body is not four full pages, penalties will apply.
|4 full pages of essay body||None|
|3.5 pages||1 letter grade|
|3 full pages||2 letter grades|
|2 full pages||Half credit|
If your essay is triple spaced, and in size 14 font, I will correct the spacing and font size before grading. Microsoft Word automatically puts extra spaces between paragraphs, so make sure to remove those or I will count them against your essay length.
A common mistake from undergraduates is to approach an essay as they might a good story or a screenplay. The point of an essay, however, is to make a strong case for a position, support an argument with evidence, or inform the reader on a topic—its primary purpose is not entertainment. Although this does not mean that the paper should be boring, it does mean that your writing should focus on evidence and rational arguments rather than flashy or colloquial language. Additionally, avoid conversational tone, instead striving for clear, precise language.
Poor Style Example 1: “I am going to cover some things about the case of Ronald Cotton. So, what do we know about this case? Ronald Cotton was wrongfully in prison for a really long time, and he didn’t need to be. The reason he was in prison was eyewitnesses who were too worried about blaming someone.”
(Notice the conversational style, rather than formal writing. The writer follows a stream-of- consciousness style that is distracting and unprofessional. This paragraph gives superfluous information, while not providing other relevant information, and makes evaluative statements that are not necessarily true.)
Poor Style Example 2: “Picture a young, blond woman just walking merrily on her way home after a party at some friends’ house. Now picture this same woman, her lifeless corpse abandoned in an alleyway after a brutal attack from a merciless psychopath. This is precisely what happened on a tragic night in July of 1985…”
(This style abandons the informative purpose of the essay and instead tries to evoke emotions. Remember that an essay is not a novel or a short story, so this style is out of place. Stick to facts.)
Better Style: “Eyewitness testimony is heavily relied upon in many criminal cases, despite its several limitations. The case of Ronald Cotton includes several examples of the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony as evidence. Mr. Cotton was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 10 years based largely on eyewitness testimony that was later found to be faulty. After initial review of some of eyewitness memory’s limitations, I will demonstrate how each was present in Cotton’s case, and likely affected the witness’s accuracy.”
(Notice the formal, informative, factual language, allowing the reader to evaluate the statements.)
The Use of Quotations
Including quoted text in your essay demonstrates to me that you know how to use the copy and paste functions on your computer. That is all it demonstrates to me. Therefore, avoid quotations unless they are absolutely necessary, and only when they support your aims for the paper. When you must include a quotation, lead into it, presenting the purpose and/or background for it. After you have given the quote, you must cite its source, and then address what it was out of the quote you wanted the reader to glean. Then, you must transition back into your own thought flow. Using excessive or unnecessary quotes is not only distracting and disruptive to your own thought flow, but it demonstrates to the reader that you are not familiar enough with your subject matter to explain it in your own words.
On a similar note, an essay is not a book report. Do not tell me what other people wrote about a topic—you write about the topic, citing those sources. For example, “Dr. Jones’s paper explains that handwriting analysis is…” is nice, but your assignment is not to tell me what Dr. Jones knows about handwriting analysis. Your assignment is to tell me what you know. A much better sentence would be, “Handwriting analysis as a forensic technique assumes that no two people will have the exact same writing (Jones, 2012).”
Please consult the Roosevelt University Writing Center, AUD 442, (312) 341-2206, firstname.lastname@example.org for proofreading, or help in constructing your essay. Be sure to take this instruction sheet with you.
Here is a very brief example of what your essay should resemble. I have given only small portions of each section. Please use the APA Format Template provided on Blackboard to guide your paper’s format.
Eyewitness Memory Applied to the Case of Ronald Cotton
Eyewitnesses are indispensable to the legal system. Given that physical evidence is not always present at a crime scene, or may take considerable time to process, an eyewitness is often the main source of evidence for investigators or prosecuting attorneys. They may quickly provide information about a sequence of events and descriptions of perpetrators, assisting authorities in building a case. However, despite its clear utility, eyewitness testimony is prone to several weaknesses, including contamination, and the cross-race effect.
Variables Affecting Eyewitness Accuracy
There are several phenomena that can affect the accuracy of an eyewitness’s memory.
Many of these variables are relevant to the actual occurrence of the crime, such as characteristics about the perpetrator. Some other influencers of memory accuracy become relevant immediately following the crime. One characteristic about the perpetrator that is known to be important to accurate memory is that person’s race.
The cross-race effect. A widely researched phenomenon that is relevant to eyewitness memory is called the cross-race or other-race effect. This effect is the reliable finding that people tend to perform more poorly when discriminating between faces that are of another race than their own. Specifically, the cross-race effect is where a successful identification of an unfamiliar face is more likely if the suspect and witness are the same race, but less likely if their
races differ. Additionally, faces of another race are more difficult to distinguish from one another.
The cross-race effect has been found across all races (Meissner & Brigham, 2001), and is particularly problematic in eyewitness memory cases where the witness and the perpetrator were not of the same race. In such cases, the witness is more likely to choose a suspect from the lineup who was not the perpetrator…
Memory contamination. Whereas several things specific to the moment of the crime are relevant, there are also phenomena that occur following a crime that may influence memory accuracy. One common weakness of eyewitness memory is that of memory contamination (e.g., Loftus, 2003). In this context, contamination is where memories become influenced by information that the witness did not experience firsthand. Often, the witness will inadvertently integrate the new information into the existing memory, thus blurring the lines between true and false memory.
Memories of events may become contaminated when new information is introduced about an event. In essence, the brain processes this new information along with the memory of the event, and sometimes the witness is later unable to separate them. This is an important phenomenon where criminal cases are concerned, as a witness may then appear in court, swearing under oath that they witnessed specific details about a crime, when in reality, they did not.
The memory contamination phenomenon has been thoroughly researched by psychologists. For example, Jenkins and Davies (1985) conducted an experiment with undergraduates, wherein the participants watched a filmed mock crime scenario and then were presented with either misleading information in a composite, or nonmisleading information…
The Faulty Identification of Mr. Cotton
The case of Ronald Cotton includes several examples of the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony as evidence in criminal cases. Mr. Cotton was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 10 years based largely on eyewitness testimony that was later found to be faulty (The Innocence Project, 2013). This section will detail the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony that were involved in his wrongful conviction. Namely, the topics described here are (a) memory contamination and (b) the cross-race effect.
Memory contamination was part of what led to Mr. Cotton’s conviction. After the first witness had identified Mr. Cotton, albeit hesitantly, as the perpetrator, the second witness learned of this fact. This is an example of memory contamination because…
Furthermore, the cross-race effect was almost certainly present in Mr. Cotton’s case, as he is African American and the eyewitness, Jennifer Thompson, is European American. During the crime committed against her, research suggests that it would have been more difficult for her to encode the unique facial features of the perpetrator, because he was of another race. Then, as Thompson was shown a lineup of African American men, the research suggests that it would have been more difficult for her to distinguish between the men’s faces, and to compare them to her fragile memory of the perpetrator…
Cautions for the Use of Eyewitness Evidence
The case of Ronald Cotton serves as an unfortunate example of the weaknesses inherent in eyewitness memory. Due to these and other weaknesses, witnesses, jurors, and judges must use caution when weighing eyewitness evidence, because the costs can be so great. Although eyewitness testimony is often vital to the strength of criminal cases, unless there is adequate
physical evidence supporting the eyewitness accounts, the risk of wrongful conviction may be too great to rely on eyewitness testimony alone. In Mr. Cotton’s case, had the jury…
Innocence Project. (2013). Eyewitness Misidentification. http://www.innocenceproject.org/ understand/Eyewitness-Misidentification.php[15 January 2014]
Jenkins, F., & Davies, G. (1985). Contamination of facial memory through exposure to misleading composite pictures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70, 164-176. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.70.1.164.
Loftus, E. F. (2003). Our changeable memories: Legal and practical implications. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 4, 231-234. http://edssspa.pbworks.com/f/
Loftus+False+Memory.pdf[14 January 2014]
Meissner, C. A., & Brigham, J. C. (2001). Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in memory for faces: A meta-analytic review. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 7, 3-35. doi:10.1037//1076-89126.96.36.199
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