MSU College of Law

Barbara O'Brien

Barbara O'Brien
[Hi-Res Photo]
Associate Professor of Law
Law College Building
648 N. Shaw Lane Rm 420
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300

Professor O'Brien joined the Law College faculty in 2007. She completed a Ph.D. in social psychology the same year at the University of Michigan, where her training included advanced coursework in research methods and statistics.

Professor O'Brien's scholarship examines the role of race and other extra-legal factors in criminal investigations, trials, and the administration of capital punishment. She has published several articles applying empirical methodology to legal issues, such as identifying predictors of false capital convictions and understanding prosecutorial decision-making.

In August 2010, O'Brien and Professor Catherine M. Grosso released a comprehensive study showing striking patterns of racial discrimination in North Carolina capital case charging, sentencing, and juror selection decisions. The project, which was conducted in response to the state's Racial Justice Act, has been cited in claims by more than 150 North Carolina death row inmates seeking to prove racial bias at the time of their charging or sentencing; those who succeed will be re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Professors Grosso and O'Brien teamed up with the Michigan State Law Review to host a spring 2011 symposium on the effect of race in capital punishment cases.

Professor O'Brien graduated Order of the Coif in 1996 from the University of Colorado School of Law, where she was an associate editor for the University of Colorado Law Review. She clerked for both the Honorable Michael P. McCuskey and the Honorable Harold A. Baker of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois. She spent a total of three years as an assistant defender and then panel attorney for the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender. O'Brien was an adjunct professor at Thomas M. Cooley School of Law prior to joining the MSU Law faculty.

In addition to teaching Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure at the Law College, O'Brien has served as an adjunct professor in the Michigan State University Department of Psychology since 2008.

Ph.D. 2007, University of Michigan; J.D. 1996, Order of the Coif, University of Colorado School of Law; B.A. 1993, cum laude, Bowdoin College

  • Criminal Law
    (Formerly DCL 131) An examination of the criminal justice system, including emphasis on the role of defense counsel and prosecutor; the adversary system; ethical considerations; sources and aims of the criminal law and construction of criminal statutes; specific crimes against person, property and the state; inchoate crimes; defenses negating culpability; and the principles of responsibility and justification.
  • Criminal Procedure: Adjudication
    (Formerly Criminal Procedure II) This course examines various issues associated with criminal adjudications with a focus on federal constitutional rights. The course covers issues such as the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, bail and pretrial detention, discovery, the plea bargaining process, speedy trial rights, federal sentencing guidelines, and post-conviction review. Students can take Criminal Procedure: Adjudication and Criminal Procedure: Investigation in any order or at the same time. Students who have taken Criminal Procedure II are ineligible to enroll in this course.

Illinois (inactive)

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Catherine M. Grosso & Barbara O’Brien, A Stubborn Legacy: The Overwhelming Importance of Race in Jury Selection in 173 Post-Batson North Carolina Capital Trials (forthcoming in the University of Iowa Law Review).

Barbara O’Brien & Catherine M. Grosso, Confronting Race: How a Confluence of Social Movements Convinced North Carolina to Go where the McCleskey Court Wouldn't (forthcoming in the Michigan State Law Review).

Barbara O'Brien, Samuel Sommers, & Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Ask and What Shall Ye Receive? A Guide for Using and Interpreting What Jurors Tell Us (forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change).

Barbara O'Brien & Daphna Oyserman, The Shield of Defense or the Sword of Prosecution: How Self-Regulatory Focus Relates to Responses to Crime, 40 J. of Applied Soc. Psychol. 1849 (2010).

Barbara O'Brien, A Recipe for Bias: An Empirical Look at the Interplay Between Institutional Incentives and Bounded Rationality in Prosecutorial Decision Making, 74 Mo. L. Rev. 999 (2009).

Barbara O'Brien, Prime Suspect: An Examination of Factors that Aggravate and Counteract Confirmation Bias in Criminal Investigations, 15 Psychol. Pub. Pol'y & L. 315 (2009).

Barbara O'Brien & Daphna Oyserman, It's Not Just What You Think, But How You Think about It: The Effect of Situationally-Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision-making, 92 Marq. L. Rev. 149 (2008).

Samuel R. Gross & Barbara O'Brien, Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction: Why We Know So Little, and New Data on Capital Cases, 5 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 927 (2008).

Norbert L. Kerr, Franklin J. Boster, Craig R. Callen, Mary E. Braz, Barbara O'Brien, & Irwin Horowitz, Jury Nullification Instructions as Amplifiers of Bias, 6 Int'l Comment. on Evidence, issue 1, article 2 (2008).

Comment, Animal Welfare Reform and the Magic Bullet: The Use and Abuse of Subtherapeutic Doses of Antibiotics in Livestock, 67 U. Colo. L. Rev. 407 (1996).