Best communications by a public sector organisation 2016

The death of Jane Doe: the psychology of a murder investigation

Goldsmiths, University of London

On 29 January 2016, 60 people arrived at Deptford Town Hall in London’s New Cross for an evening with a difference. They were there to investigate a ‘murder’. The body of an unidentified young woman had been discovered by a security guard, John Locke, at 6.45am. She had last been seen alive by cleaners working late at her desk, at around 7pm.

By the time the group had arrived, the police had informed the victim’s family, issued a request for members of the public to come forward with information and identified two potential suspects.

The group, aged between 18 and 25, comprised local residents, policy makers and experts in crime, policing and mental health and were to act as ‘trainee police’ and ‘investigative reporters’.  The immersive murder mystery evening was designed to raise the profile of the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths, which had opened in September 2015; showcase the university’s expertise and research, specifically in forensic psychology; and to gather data from audience members for active research by academics.

The event capitalised on the growing interest in forensic psychology, prompted in part by the rise of Nordic noir crime dramas and documentaries such as Making a Murderer, but also responded to a growing view in the academic world that clinical psychology needs to raise its voice and make its work appear more accessible.

Working closely with actors, former police officers and a special effects expert, the Forensic Psychology Unit also drew on details from real crimes documented by The Innocence Project, which has helped to exonerate more than 300 American prisoners from wrongful convictions using DNA evidence.

The ‘trainee police’ and ‘investigative reporters’ were presented with evidence, including the crime scene complete with a ‘body’, by forensic psychologists and former senior police detectives and attended a press conference with an emotional appeal from the ‘victim’s family’ and CCTV footage.

Suspects were introduced throughout the evening and mingled with the audience, who were asked at various intervals to identify the perpetrator. This data tested researchers’ hypotheses. Three in four attendees found the event enjoyable and are likely to recommend future ones to their friends.

But the event also gained exposure for the new Forensic Psychology Unit, and fostered relations with future students and journalists at trade magazines, such as New Scientist and The Psychologist.

The judges loved the ‘creative approach’ to building awareness, describing the event as ‘well executed’ and ‘an excellent mix of theatre and immersive’.