New MOOC looks at the social science behind wrongful convictions

Katie Jacobs
June 06, 2014

Flip on the TV, and it’s almost a given you’ll find a forensics crime show playing on one of the channels: “CSI,” “Forensic Files” or “Bones,” just to name a few. But while there’s no denying that forensics is a hot topic, there are other ways to understand crime and why it happens.

“DNA and forensics are certainly important in many ways, including the exoneration of individuals who were wrongly convicted of a crime,” said Tim Robicheaux, sociology and crime lecturer at Penn State. “But what if they’re not enough? What if there’s not enough forensic evidence on the scene, or it’s compromised? That’s where the social science aspect comes in.”

Robicheaux is teaching the Penn State massive open online course (MOOC) “Presumed Innocent? The Social Science of Wrongful Conviction,” which, when released on Coursera June 25, will be the University’s sixth MOOC. It’s the first, however, to offer the option to take a MOOC for Penn State credit as CRIM 201, sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Criminology.

“This course will answer some of the questions that have been circulating since MOOCs were first introduced,” says Cathy Holsing, director of learning design in the College of the Liberal Arts. “For instance, how can we mix MOOCs with more traditional online courses? Also, the for-credit students will be interacting with the students taking the MOOC for free, so it’ll be interesting to see the differences between the two groups.”

Social science looks at the psychological, anthropological and other factors that drive human interaction and, in this case, crime and wrongful convictions. While the American justice system is effective and efficient, it’s not perfect — and sometimes the wrong people get convicted of a crime. 

Robicheaux says that’s more likely to happen in more severe cases, like murder, because emotions run higher and there’s immense pressure to solve the crime quickly. It’s estimated that one in 25 inmates on death row are actually innocent.

“Wrongful convictions happen for a multitude of reasons. The most common cause is mistakes made by eyewitnesses, because memory can be fickle, but people also falsely confess, lie and say they had accomplices, or have an inadequate defense,” said Robicheaux. “But it’s also important to note that for a wrongful conviction to happen, there have to be mistakes made almost every step of the way in the investigation. It’s rarely due to one thing.”

Take, for example, the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd.

In 1984, Lloyd was a patient at the Detroit Psychiatric Institute, where he’d fallen into the habit of writing to police to advise them on solving high-profile crimes. After he wrote to them about the recent murder of a 16-year-old girl, police got suspicious. They interviewed him several times before convincing him to confess to the murder, telling him that by being arrested, he would drive the real killer to come forward.

After police urging, Lloyd provided both written and tape-recorded confessions. No inquiry was made into why he had been at the psychiatric institute, and his court-appointed lawyer didn’t look into how Lloyd’s confession was obtained before dropping the case eight days before the trial. Lloyd’s trial attorney didn’t meet with the previous one, nor did he question any details of the investigation. 

In May 1985, Lloyd was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted people, took on Lloyd’s case in 1995. In 2002, after 17 years of imprisonment, Lloyd was finally exonerated.

Robicheaux’s MOOC will explore the reasons cases like this happen, as well as reinforce the consequences of wrongful convictions and explain why the social science behind them is so important. Students will watch video lectures and read text lessons as well as get the chance to view guest interviews with Penn State faculty and alumni. For-credit students will complete extra work through ANGEL, Penn State’s course management system, and will get personal feedback and assessment from Robicheaux and teaching assistants. 

Anyone can sign up for the MOOC for free at

The CRIM 201 credit course begins July 2, allowing students to register even after the free version of the course begins. To learn more about earning credit for the course at the reduced tuition rate, go to

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at

  • Perspective image of prison hall

    It’s estimated that 1 in 25 inmates on death row are actually innocent.

    IMAGE: Flickr, William Warby

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 09, 2014