A trial judge serves as gatekeeper in the courtroom to ensure that only reliable expert witness testimony is presented to the jury. Nevertheless, research shows that while judges take seriously their gatekeeper status, legal professionals in general are unable to identify well conducted research and are unable to define falsifiability, error rates, peer review status, and scientific validity (Gatkowski et al., 2001; Kovera & McAuliff, 2000). However, the abilities to identify quality scientific research and define scientific concepts are critical to preventing “junk” science from entering courtrooms. Research thus far has neglected to address that before selecting expert witnesses, judges and attorneys must first evaluate experts’ CVs rather than their scientific testimony to determine whether legal standards of admissibility have been met. The quality of expert testimony, therefore, largely depends on the ability to evaluate properly experts’ credentials. Theoretical models of decision making suggest that ability/knowledge and motivation are required to process information systematically. Legal professionals (judges and attorneys) were expected to process CVs heuristically when rendering expert witness decisions due to a lack of training in areas of psychology expertise.
Legal professionals’ (N = 150) and undergraduate students’ (N = 468) expert witness decisions were examined and compared. Participants were presented with one of two versions of a criminal case calling for the testimony of either a clinical psychology expert or an experimental legal psychology expert. Participants then read one of eight curricula vitae that varied area of expertise (clinical vs. legal psychology), previous expert witness experience (previous experience vs. no previous experience), and scholarly publication record (30 publications vs. no publications) before deciding whether the expert was qualified to testify in the case. Follow-up measures assessed participants’ decision making processes.
Legal professionals were not better than college students at rendering quality psychology expert witness admissibility decisions yet they were significantly more confident in their decisions. Legal professionals rated themselves significantly higher than students in ability, knowledge, and motivation to choose an appropriate psychology expert although their expert witness decisions were equally inadequate. Findings suggest that participants relied on heuristics, such as previous expert witness experience, to render decisions.