A sobering study has raised serious questions about the reliability of a document that’s generally treated in the courtroom as objective truth: the medical examiner’s report.
Researchers at University College London presented a group of forensic pathologists—all board-certified members of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME)—with a “not straightforward” case, a 3-year-old who arrives at the emergency room with a head injury and later dies. All pathologists received the same medical findings and investigation reports, but some were told the child was White and in the care of a grandmother, others that the child was Black and in the care of the mother’s boyfriend.
The graph above illustrates the study’s most dramatic finding: Pathologists in the study called the death an accident, not a homicide, twice as often in the case of a White child with a grandmother; in a complete reversal, they called the death a homicide five times as often as accident in the case of a Black child with the mother’s boyfriend. Journalist Radley Balko, in an editorial in The Washington Post, called the study “stark evidence of cognitive bias among medical examiners.”
The study also raises questions about the fundamental reliability of an ME’s conclusions: 78 of the 133 pathologists in the study told researchers they didn’t have enough information to determine whether the death was accident or homicide. Of those who gave an opinion, 23 called it an accident, 32 a homicide.
“This is already a problem,” Balko’s editorial noted. “Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasn’t the case in this study.”
I recommend reading both the editorial and the journal article itself:
“Opinion: Study finds cognitive bias in how medical examiners evaluate child deaths” by Radley Balko, The Washington Post, 2021-02-20
- “Cognitive bias in forensic pathology decisions,” Itiel Dror PhD, Judy Melinek MD, Jonathan L. Arden MD, Jeff Kukucka PhD, Sarah Hawkins JD, Joye Carter MD, PhD, Daniel S. Atherton MD, Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2021-02-20
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