Psychology Experts Face Off

This post was written by Autumn Carroll (MC ’22) and edited by N. Locklin.

By now, we have seen that the grounds on which Ada Wells made her identification were a bit shaky. She was unable to make an immediate identification of Will Sheffey as the attacker, only being able to following a hallucination that took the form of Sheffey at the end of her bed, and the “line up” and photos she was given to identify him were not well developed, to say the least. However, her story and identification never faltered, so there was still reason for her statement to be trusted. Experts were called in from both sides to try to shape the jury’s trust of Ada’s identification.

On August 20th, the prosecution opened up the day with the introduction of medical experts. Dr. R. E. Lee Smith took the stand following Dr. G. D. Lequire, who spoke of Luther Wells’ injuries and death, and Dr. J. Walter McMahon, who tended to Ada and was present when she said that she had seen her attacker. Introducing Dr. Smith as an expert was a new tactic that surprised everyone. By the time of the trial, Dr. Smith had served as superintendent of Eastern State Hospital for eight years. Smith attended UT Medical School after receiving his undergraduate degree at Burritt College. He had taken one psychology course during his time in higher education, but he continued the study of psychology as it pertained to his patients. He was a member of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, but he was not a part of the American Psychological Association. His testimony described how the brain functioned, particularly the way impressions were received and retained. Smith explained how it was possible for one to retain an impression in the subconscious mind and later develop it. According to Smith, it is possible that mental stress would cause an impression to be held in the subconscious mind for a longer stint of time before developing. In Ada’s case, her fear and other situational stress could have caused her to not be able to identify her attacker initially, but later reflection would cause the memory to be touched by consciousness, resulting in recollection. He further explained this process by touching on the typical occurrence of struggling to recall someone’s name but suddenly remember it after turning your attention to something else. When Attorney General Peace asked Smith to announce everything he knew about the self-conscious, he added that individuals have five senses, and it is the stimulus from one of these senses that pierces the mind of the ‘conscious’ and moves to the subconscious where it is reverted back as perception, then conception, and, lastly, memory. To give a better visual of this process, he presented a chart. The introduction of this chart received objections from Gamble, but Judge Blair overruled it. This chart shown the brain divided into three divisions: Intellection, Emotion, and Volition.

Dr. Smith’s explanation of the self-conscious, particularly the part about there being three divisions of the brain, is what we can now label as the triune brain theory. It was given the name in 1960 by neuroscientist Paul MacLean, but the explanation is centuries old, dating all the way back to Plato. The triune brain theory separates the brain into three hierarchical regions that formed through evolution. The idea is that there are three brains within one mind: the Reptilian Brain, Mammalian Brain, and Homo Sapiens Brain. The Reptilian Brain, which would be located in the basal ganglia, would have come first, and it is in charge of our fight-or-flight survival response and other primal activities. This would be the Volition part of Smith’s explanation. Next, there is the Mammalian Brain, located within the limbic system, which is in charge of our somatosensory and emotional experiences. This would be the Emotion division of Smith’s explanation. Finally, the Homo Sapien Brain, located in the neo (frontal) cortex, is responsible for intellectual and executive functioning, verbal language, conscious thought, and self-awareness. It is the Intellection division of the brain. This theory is mostly considered to be myth as of today. This theory tells us that there is a strict hierarchy in the brain and that brain regions are working separately when engaged in different mental activities, which we now recognize as being untrue. Modern brain imaging causes rejection of this idea because we have a visual of the various brain regions that are active during primal, emotional, and rational experiences. The brain is a solid unit that works together in our everyday tasks and experiences, thus showing us that there is not a strict hierarchy within the brain.

Source: Your Own Best Friend

The defense team attempted damage control by questioning Smith’s expertise in the realm of psychology of the subconscious. His credentials were questioned, and he was even asked a psychology question that was pulled out of a contemporary textbook on psychology. The state objected this, and the judge made note that the line of questioning was irrelevant. Smith was then excused as a witness. The defense got their time to bring in an expert on August 25th. Kramer and Gamble of the defense took advantage of their ties to Maryville College to call on Dr. J. C. Barnes who was dean of the college, a recognized psychologist, and a professor of psychology.

Dr. J. C. Barnes had a degree from Marietta College and a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Chicago, which was second to Harvard and Cornell in prestige for a psychology degree at the time. His doctoral supervisor there was James Rowland Angell, who was one of the key founders of functionalism. Before becoming a professor and dean at Maryville College, he had teaching positions at the University of Ohio and the University of Tennessee. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, for which he was President of in 1916, and the American Psychological Association. At Maryville College, he taught several psychology courses, including the following: Elementary Psychology, Child Psychology, Advanced Educational Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Measure of Intelligence, Applied Psychology, and Advanced Psychology.

Dr. J. C. Barnes was the last one called to the stand, being brought up in an attempt to discredit Dr. Smith’s testimony which said that Ada Wells could have recovered her memory of the attacker after initially saying she could not identify him. When asked if it was possible for someone to suffer a trauma, originally be unable to recall details of it, but later recall them, Barnes confidently replied, “Absolutely impossible.” He further elaborated by saying that there was no way that someone could get an impression unless consciously doing so, dismissing the idea of the subconscious mind. In Ada’s case, Barnes said that if she had gotten a clear look at the intruder, then she would have been able to recall him immediately. He was questioned on how Ada picked out Sheffey in a group photo and when he stood before her, in which he responded, “… if the mind is full of a thing there comes an illusion of what one desires.” Furthermore, Barnes stated that there was no way for the mind to take in impression, have it be clouded by fear, and later recall the memory when the fear is gone.

The state brought in an expert that laid out a claim that was completely countered by the defense’s expert. It was up to the jury to decide who they believed more.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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