August, 2017

UK Study Links Antidepressants to Murders and Murderous Thoughts

A British study, by the BBC, found that over the last 30 years sixty cases – 28 involving murders and 32 involving “murderous thoughts” – have been reported to the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency as having links to antidepressants. The drugs, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or “SSRIs”), include Prozac, Zoloft, and Seroxat.

The issue of whether or not SSRIs have a causal link to murderous behavior is a contested one. For example, the BBC study looked at the American case of James Holmes and the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and found that as his dosage of sertraline increased, so did his psychotic thoughts, and that the drug lessened his anxiety or fear of consequences. An adviser to Holmes’s defense team, the British psychiatrist Professor David Healy, was quoted as saying, “I believe if he hadn’t taken the sertraline he wouldn’t have murdered anyone.” However, the role of the drug, if any, in Holmes’s actions was not pursued at trial.  Professor Healy was not a witness for the defense. The manufacturer of sertraline, Pfizer, stated that no causal connection between the drug and homicidal behavior has been established. The prosecuting attorney in the Holmes case, George Brauchler, was quoted as saying that Holmes was evil and had a long-standing hatred of mankind, and “I don’t think the medications caused these shootings, I think this guy with his evil thoughts, having concluded that he had no other alternative future, with the mental illness, led to this, that’s what I think did it.”

Sources:  Sarah Knapton, “Antidepressants linked to murders and murderous thoughts,” telegraph.co.uk, July 26, 2017:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/07/25/antidepressants-linked-murders-murderous-thoughts/
Shelley Jofre, “The Batman Killer -a prescription for murder?,” bbc.co.uk, July 26, 2017:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/aurora_shooting
BBC Panorama broadcast, “A Prescription for Murder?” July 26, 2017:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zjyp1

Eyewitness False Identification Studies

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated, as the Innocence Project has proven in hundreds of cases, that eyewitness misidentifications are the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project estimates that misidentifications factor in 70% or more of the wrongful convictions that have been overturned through exonerations.

Identification procedures used in England and Wales differ from those commonly used in the United States. For example, in the U.S., a “6-pack” of photographs is commonly used as a lineup procedure. In the U.K., a witness views fifteen-second videos of nine array participants individually, or sequentially, and must view all nine videos before the witness is allowed to either make an identification or a non-identification. Studies have demonstrated that the U.S. method is more accurate and less likely to lead to misidentifications; false identifications occurred more frequently in the British system than in the American model. Also, research has shown that witnesses who are most confident in their identifications are more likely to make correct identifications and that the U.S. procedure demonstrated higher levels of witness-confidence – at all levels – than did the U.K. procedure.

In the U.K., recent studies have focused upon the “misinformation effect” of “co-witness conformity” where a witness, influenced by information received from others, does not accurately separate the witness’s own recollections from the post-event information received from others. Witnesses could be easily manipulated or influenced by others into including false information into a narrative or even into actually believing that the witness had witnessed something that did not occur.
 Group testing in the study revealed that when there was no actor providing false information into a test-group, 32% of the participants later gave inaccurate information when recalling an event. That percentage number could be attributable to factors such as poor eyesight or memory, according to the researchers. When an actor with false information was introduced into the group, the error-rate increased to 52% and, when more than two actors with false information were introduced into the group, the error-rate of the test-witnesses increased to 80%.

The U.K. study found that 86% of actual eyewitnesses reported that they had discussed the crime or incident with others prior to giving evidence.

The Innocence Project has suggested five procedures to minimize misidentifications by eyewitnesses:

• Blind administration of the identification procedure, where “the officer administering the lineup is unaware of who the suspect is, [to] prevent suggestive statements or unconscious gestures or vocal cues that may influence the witness, thereby reducing the risk of a misidentification.”
• Ensuring that the “fillers” in a lineup resemble the witness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect looks similar to the fillers.
• Providing the witness with instructions that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup and, regardless of whether the witness makes an identification, the investigation will continue.
• Ascertaining the witness’s level of confidence at the time an identification is made.
• Requiring that the identification procedure is videotaped and/or audio-recorded.

Sources:  Dara Mojtahedi, “New research reveals how little we can trust eyewitnesses,” theconversation.com, July 13, 2017:
https://theconversation.com/new-research-reveals-how-little-we-can-trust-eyewitnesses-67663
Dara Mojtahedi, “The reduction of false convictions,” researchgate.net, February 27, 2017:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314082250_The_Reduction_of_False_Convictions
Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide,” innocenceproject.org [undated]:
https://www.innocenceproject.org/causes/eyewitness-misidentification/

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor