Wrongful Conviction Speaker Series Interview with Dr. Brian Cahill

The University of Florida Department of Psychology and the Levin College of Law have been co-sponsoring the Wrongful Conviction Speaker Series, a series created by Dr. Brian Cahill (Psychology) that focuses on factors that contribute to wrongful convictions and how to stop them. The Series is broken down into four events during the spring 2018 semester, two of which have already occurred. Each event has its own focus on Wrongful Convictions.

Dr. Brian Cahill has been the coordinator behind the entire Speaker Series, where he has been responsible for collaborating with the Gierach Speaker Series and the UF Law School, finding speakers for each event, fundraising, and the overall planning of the series. Dr. Cahill is a lecturer for the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida and a trained legal psychologist, whose expertise lies in his research of eyewitness decision making, jury decision making, and detecting deception. Dr. Cahill’s passion for a fair criminal justice system runs deep. “One of our most basic principles in America is the idea that we all have freedom guaranteed in our constitution. To lose that freedom that we fight so hard for bothers me, especially when it’s preventable. Things are going to happen, no system is going to be perfect. But it’s terrifying how easy it can be and how easy it can be to fix some of the more glaring issues. And when I see an institution fight to maintain mediocrity, well, it pisses me off to be honest. That’s why I get passionate about it.”

When discussing his ultimate goal to achieve from this series, Dr. Cahill stated “My ultimate goal is to raise awareness. One of the best ways to stop these injustices from happening, as a society, is to make people realize that they are a thing. A lot of people don’t know how often this occurs or don’t think that it’s a big deal, don’t think that you can get wrongfully convicted. There are still people that don’t think you can falsely confess to a crime. There’s a lot of push back. People want finality, that’s what we discussed at the last talk. People want to know that we have a system that works, and that when a crime is committed, justice is served and that is a final decision and we can move on with our lives. I want to raise awareness, so we can start reform, we need to pass laws that help prevent wrongful convictions. We need to reform the criminal justice system.”

The first two events of the speaker series have been quite successful so far in Dr. Cahill’s view. During the first event, Dr. Lora Levitt discussed eyewitness identification, the leading cause of wrongful conviction. The talk examined the first 300 DNA cases, where around 75% of those had a wrongful identification involved. The second event revolved around a Wrongful Conviction Discussion panel, which hosted several key criminal law experts from around the state. Dr. Cahill explained that the panel of experts discussed the “institutional, political, and financial factors that often lead to wrongful convictions. So we kinda opened up the curtain behind the justice system to show people how things really happen. This is how someone is wrongfully convicted, the process for them to get exonerated, and the obstacles that are in their way once they are actually exonerated.”

The 3rd event, happening on Wednesday, March 28th, will feature Dr. Christian Meissner, who will discuss another leading factor that leads to wrongful conviction: false confession. Dr. Meissner will focus on interrogation practices, how certain tactics used by the police increase false confessions and also personal factors of a suspect, like Youth, that increase false confession.

The 4th and final event, on April 11th, will feature Dr. Shari Schwartz and Dr. Billy Nolas, who will focus on the current state of the death penalty in the United States (and in Florida Particularly). According to Dr. Cahill, “There are two arguments for the death penalty: It gives justice for the Victim’s family, retribution for the system, and it prevents or deters crime in general. So, if people know that I can be sentenced to death then they won’t commit that crime. When you look at the data, very few people actually get sentenced to death, unless you’re in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, or Virginia that make up 59% of all executions since 1976 (Texas alone accounts for about 38% of all executions). But most of the time, people die in prison on death row, so it’s not really serving the first purpose. Second, no data shows that it deters crime at all. People that commit murder are not rational people, they are not going to stop what they are doing during the crime and say “Well I shouldn’t kill this person because I am going to get caught and then sentenced to death” So, it doesn’t really serve the second purpose either. So logically one might ask, Why the hell do we even have the death penalty?”

So, why exactly should wrongful convictions be important to you, and why should you come to the last two events? Dr. Cahill answers here: “It should be important because it could happen to anybody. I know it’s a cliche way of saying it, but it really can happen to you. They’re going to teach you about factors that we can specifically vote on in future elections to help prevent wrongful convictions. It’s going to be fun and intellectually stimulating, and you’ll learn about how you can improve our criminal justice system. This matters because every time you wrongfully convict someone, you make two errors: you convict an innocent person and the guilty party is still free to commit more crime and harm innocent citizens. The ultimate goal is to stop making two errors, right? You want to make as few errors as possible. So, if we can stop wrongfully convicting people, that protects us as a society.”

For more details, please check out the flyer for the Wrongful Conviction Speaker Series below: