I just read a very scary book, Mark Godsey’s Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Conviction (2017).
I’ve written the script for an Ethics Unwrapped video on cognitive dissonance that we have not yet had an opportunity to film. However, the concept clearly has much to do with ethical decision making, as Godsey’s book demonstrates conclusively.
Godsey is active in the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), trying to gain release for wrongfully convicted prisoners. In the past few years literally hundreds of inmates have been freed, largely because incontrovertible DNA testing established that they could not have been the perpetrators of the murders and rapes for which they often have served decades in jail. Many things in the book astonish and horrify, but I want to focus on cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon labeled by psychologist Leon Festinger back in the 1950s.
Cognitive dissonance is people’s tendency to reduce or avoid psychological inconsistencies. It is painful for us to believe one thing, but to be presented with evidence of another. So, when people voluntarily commit to a particular belief or position and new evidence comes in to contradict that belief or position, our self-concept is threatened and our cognitive processes work unconsciously to suppress such information if possible.
Festinger learned this when he studied a cult whose leader had predicted the end of the world on a certain date. Aliens from outer space were going to come and take the cult members away as the rest of humanity died in a worldwide holocaust. The cult members sold their worldly possessions and followed their leader to the designated pickup spot where the aliens were to appear at midnight. Spoiler alert: no aliens arrived. Several hours later the leader announced that she had received a new and revised message from the aliens: the earth was being spared because of the faithful actions of the cult members. One would think that any sensible follower would have lost all confidence in the leader, given that her prophesy was indisputably wrong. However, as Festinger had predicted, instead the followers believed in their leader more than ever. Cognitive dissonance caused them to reconcile the inconsistencies so they could tell themselves that they had been right all along in trusting their leader.
While the actions of these cult members seem unhinged, we must remember that we are all subject to cognitive dissonance, which is pushed along by something called the confirmation bias—we all like to be told that our current beliefs and positions are right. We tend to reject information indicating that they are wrong. Falling prey to cognitive dissonance is a very human thing to do, but it can cause perfectly reasonable people to act in an evil fashion.
Godsey gives several examples. One is particularly bone-chilling. In 1968, a grandmother was raped and murdered in the middle of the night in her own living room. Then, in a nearby bedroom, her six-year-old granddaughter was raped, beaten and left for dead. However, she survived. When asked by the police to describe her attacker, whom she had seen for only a few seconds in the darkness before she was knocked unconscious, the six-year-old said that he looked like her uncle Clarence. After a couple of rounds of questioning by the police, they had converted that to it was Uncle Clarence, Clarence Elkins, and they concluded that he was the perpetrator. After that point, virtually every piece of evidence that was uncovered pointed away from Clarence Elkins as the perpetrator. But none of it swayed the police and prosecutors who had made up their minds.
Clarence’s wife testified that Clarence was with her several miles away in their home. She had been up most of the night with a sick child and would have known if Clarence had left. She certainly had no strong motive to protect the killer of her own mother. Although the murder house was a bloodbath, there was not a single fingerprint or hair traceable to Clarence. Nor could the police find blood on any item belonging to Clarence. They even looked in his shower drains to see if there was any blood from the victims. Nope. Nonetheless, the prosecution convicted Elkins, who had no criminal record, and sent him away for life.
When DNA testing advanced, the Ohio Innocence Project had new DNA tests performed that found semen from a male in the grandmother’s vaginal cavity and skin from the same male on the panties of the six-year-old. The DNA did not match Elkins. He clearly was not the perpetrator. Yet, when the OIP asked for Elkins’ exoneration, the prosecutors and police fought like wildcats with the most ridiculous arguments that one can imagine.
Even when the DNA was matched with a prisoner with a history of violent crimes who had been living just two doors away from the victims and admitted the crime, and resembled Elkins, the prosecutors still argued that Elkins was guilty. He just must have been accompanied by the real rapist, who the OIP dubbed an “unindicted co-ejaculator” because this is a typical prosecution reaction to exonerating DNA evidence. “OK, this new guy raped her. But the guy we charged raped her, too. He just somehow didn’t leave any physical traces at the scene of the crime” is the common response.
So much do police officers and prosecutors wish to believe that they did not send an innocent person to jail, cognitive dissonance causes their minds to accept the most outlandish theories and to reject the most compelling evidence. Their actions caused Elkins to remain in jail much longer than he should have given the overwhelming evidence of his obvious innocence.
The Central Park jogger case is another example. In 1989, five teenagers confessed to raping and beating a jogger in Central Park. Although they quickly retracted their confessions, blaming them on police coercion and no physical evidence linked them to the crime, the police and prosecution made up their minds and charged and convicted all five, even though semen in the victim came from only one person. Donald Trump called for their swift execution in a full-page newspaper ad. Thirteen years later, another man who had been convicted of several other rapes in the area confessed to the crime. Indeed, his DNA matched the semen recovered from the victim. That should have led to the Central Park Five’s immediate release.
Unfortunately, the lead prosecutor continued to maintain that the five were guilty and that the fellow with the only physical link to the crime must have been a sixth rapist…again, an unindicted co-ejaculator. The head detective was outraged that anyone would believe the confession, saying: ‘This lunatic concocts this wild story and these people fell for it.” This is how hard the prosecution and police wish to believe that they didn’t get it wrong….that they were not the reason that five innocent men went to jail for 13 years for something they didn’t do.
Godsey doesn’t believe that the prosecutors and police officers who resist obvious, conclusive evidence of innocence are evil people. He believes that they are good people, just like you and me, who are caused to do evil things by the power of cognitive dissonance.
Godsey’s book should remind us not to be overconfident of our beliefs, to be open to new evidence, and to be courageous enough to own our mistakes. Otherwise, the evil we do may be staggering.
Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (2007).
Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957).
Godsey, Mark, Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions (2017).
Langevoort, Donald, “Where Were the Lawyers? A Behavioral Inquiry Into Lawyers’ Responsibility for Clients’ Fraud,” 46 Vanderbilt Law Review 75 (1993).
O, Brien, Barbara, “A Recipe for Bias: An Empirical Look at the Interplay between Institutional Incentives and Bounded Rationality in Prosecutorial Decision Making,” 74 Missouri Law Review 999 (2009).
Prentice, Robert, “The Case of the Irrational Auditor: A Behavioral Insight into Securities Fraud Litigation,” 95 Northwestern University Law Review 133 (2000).