Confronting Cognitive Bias in Forensic Anthropology Michigan’s Craigslist Killer Case

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Alexis Goots
Joseph Hefner
David Start


Accurately estimating the biological profile is a foundational analysis within forensic anthropology. Although the methods for estimating the biological profile are well established, their accuracy can be affected by several factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the skeletal remains. If any of these factors impact the anthropological analysis to the degree that any one of the four components of the biological profile is estimated inaccurately, the potential for making a positive identification is significantly limited. Since identification is one of the primary goals of forensic anthropologists, effort should be undertaken to avoid any issues that could lead to a lengthy case resolution process. One particularly troubling issue in estimating the biological profile is the potential for cognitive bias to influence the anthropological analysis. The ramifications of this bias can be understood especially well in a case context. Therefore, we will present a case that has two clear impacts. First, the circumstances of this case will illustrate the biasing power of extraneous demographic information. The lessons learned from this case will be placed in the context of broader literature regarding cognitive bias in forensic anthropology and will present a cautionary tale and recommendations for forensic practitioners moving forward. Second, this case will underscore the importance of estimating ancestry in forensic anthropology. The methodological process of estimating ancestry in the following case played a crucial role in our eventual ability to make a positive identification, and as such, ancestry estimation should continue to be considered an integral part of the biological profile.

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