A real data scientist reviews Bull’s ‘trial science’

I thought it would be fun to evaluate the reality of the trial science used in the TV show, Bull, airing on CBS. For those who don’t know Bull, it’s about a jury consultant company. Dr. Jason Bull is a psychologist that rules Trial Analysis Corporation (TAC) with a touch of arrogance and an uncanny ability to peer into people’s personality. Besides Bull, the team consists of a neurolinguistics expert, a trial lawyer, a Vogue stylist, an ex-spy and a hacker. They say that “The way to win [a case] is to know your jurors down to their neurons.”

In the first episode, “The Necklace,” Bull is hired to help defend the high-school aged son of a millionaire. The boy was accused of killing a drug-dealing girl from his school. Bull must use his skills and technology to deduce the intentions of the jurors to get the rich kid off.

We’re introduced to trial science almost immediately. Marissa Morgan, the team neurolinguistics expert, explains that trial science is law mixed with psychology, neurolinguistics, and demographics. I’m not sure I would call demographics a science. It is statistical data relating to the population of a certain group. Typical information gives average age, income, education, etc. But since by definition it includes statistics, we’ll let it go.


Photo: Cable, Marissa and Bull in the war room using trial science to monitor jurors. credit: David M. Russell/CBS©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

In this episode, some of the technology we see include:

  • Biometrics – Bull style: presumably, by holding their hand on top of an iPad, TAC can monitor the “biometrics” of mock jurors. A computer station like you see in the image reads ‘biometrics data sampling’ next to the photo of a juror. Biometrics is metrics related to human characteristics such as a fingerprint, facial recognition, or hand geometry. Your iPhone uses biometrics when your fingerprint unlocks your phone. Biometrics cannot read emotions. A more correct definition of what Bull’s team are doing is affective computing. However, neither biometrics nor affective computing can read minds as Bull seems to indicate to his client.

  • Web apps: Again in the war room, Bull presents to the rich client and his lawyers a tablet with a set of questions for voir dire. Voir dire, for those non-lawyers, is the process of asking jurors questions in order to get into their mindset on how they might decide for or against the defendant. Storing voir dire questions on a tablet is a common practice in juried trials. Tablets are portable and easy to manage in the courtroom. Vijilent offers a web app for this reason.

  • Predictive analytics: Marissa says, “Even before jury selection, TAC profiles every potential juror. Their behavioral patterns in life and, especially, online. What they click on, likes, keywords; it all gets plugged into a 400-factor matrix that is scary in its predictive efficiency. We’ll know how they’ll vote even before they do.” This is Vijilent’s area of expertise. That 400-factor matrix is another word for regression, a type of statistical technique, sometimes also called machine learning.

  • Bugging devices: Bull bugs the rich lawyer’s watch. Highly unethical, but technically possible.

  • Social media mining: Back in the war room Bull is watching the set of computer monitors playing a series of short clips. It implies that the team is gathering data on the lifestyle of the murdered girl and the alleged killer. They’re pulling up social media including Instagram, Youtube and Facebook. All of this is easily doable, particularly if they received access to these accounts. Technical feasibility for a company like Vijilent is extremely easy.

  • Phone hacking: The ex-spy, Danny (a black woman), asks Cable (the team hacker – a female – score two for diversity) to hack the rich kid’s phone. If the client has given permission to access all this information, Cable would not need to ‘hack’ into phone records. But I guess it sounds good.

  • Demographics (remember it’s a science in Bull’s world): Marissa (the neurolinguist) reads off the demographics of a juror, including age, occupation, marital status, family make-up. Obtaining all this type of information is possible and something we specialize in at Vijilent. It’s also reported that this juror has a bumper sticker that says ‘The System is Rigged’. This too is information that would be possible to obtain, if Bull’s team monitored the parking lot (no tech needed here). Highly unlikely that any jury consultant would do that. It’s creepy and expensive to hire spies.

  • Data portrait: Back in the war room, Bull brings up the profile of the juror we met earlier, Bess Johnson. Soon after, the screen shows a list of demographics including:

    • DOB- Social Security Number- Race- Place of Birth

    • Education- Occupation- Religious Affiliation- Criminal Record

    • Address- Home Phone- Political Affiliation- Email used

    • Cell Phone- Military Service- Marital status- Other Documents

    Of this list, the only information that Vijilent would not be able to access is Social Security Number. Vijilent has trademarked DataPortrait® as it’s something we specialize in.

    Then, Bull pulls up HIPPA consent documents, bank statements, utility bills, and a criminal report of a crime against Bess. Apparently, she was the victim of domestic abuse. Accessing this type of data is illegal without a warrant. Technology would not help to uncover this info legally.

  • Camera surveillance: In conducting further assessment of Ms. Johnson, Bull views surveillance cameras from the courthouse, where he views that Bess is a well-respected member of the jury panel. Although technologically feasible, this would never be data that would be available about a juror.

  • Social media mining II: Cable claims to have gone through 30,000 of the defendants photos, ‘even Snapchat’. For a teenager to have 30,000 photos is believable. But, for Cable to have viewed Snapchat photos is less believable. Snapchat photos are automatically deleted in 1-10 seconds of viewing. Two things would make it possible for Cable to access these photos, (1) if she had access to everyone’s phone and (2) if everyone used Android. Android apparently keeps photos in your delete folder. iPhone does not.

  • Emotional intelligence: The first time that emotional intelligence is noted is when Marissa and Bull are discussing bondage (the rich boy has a photo of a girl – not the murdered girl – in bondage). Marissa talks about the traits of ‘extroversion, openness and conscientiousness.’ These are three of the Big 5 personality traits. The other two are neurosis and agreeableness. At Vijilent, we provide this Big 5 emotional intelligence when evaluating social media postings. Using a natural language processing technique, we can also provide information on emotional tones, sentiment and moral foundation. We use a combination of IBM Watson and our own algorithms for this assessment.

How believable is this trial science?

The technological representation is surprisingly more accurate than I thought it would be. We’ll give it an B+ for believability in regards to technology. Most of the technology is already available. Maybe just not in the same exaggerated style. Also, lawyers don’t need to break the law to analyze the social media content and personality of potential jurors. Vijilent can show you how to do it legally. As for the legal side, if you want to read how a real jury consultant see a fictional one, read Roy Futterman's blog. Just in case you’re wondering, Bull & his team saves the day and gets the kid a not guilty verdict.

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