Forensic Psychologists in the Courtroom

by Fabiola Fleuranvil, June 2014

famous court cases involving forensic psychologistsCourtroom and criminal investigative television shows have become very popular over the past few years. On television and in movies forensic psychologists uncover a clue that leads to a major break in the case, solves the crime, and puts the bad guy away for a long time. Other movies show the forensic psychologist drilling the defendant in an attempt to get into his mind and uncover the thoughts of the criminal.

In reality, the role of forensic psychologists is more closely related to that of a clinical psychologist but with specialized forensic training to apply psychological evaluation within a legal framework.

As in the movies, there are sometimes scenarios where the forensic psychologist may indeed provide clues and psychological analysis that ultimately leads to a big break in a criminal or civil case. There have also been real life courtroom dramas that made major headlines and where a forensic psychologist determined the outcome of the case.

Forensic Psychologists at Work

Jodi Arias Case

One courtroom drama that recently made national headlines is the Jodi Arias murder case. Arias was accused of the murder of her boyfriend on June 4, 2008 and convicted of first-degree murder on May 8, 2013. Arias claimed self-defense in the murder trial, her claim of self-defense was debunked by evidence provided by the prosecution. One could argue that the statements of each sides expert witnesses were put forth to the court. The forensic psychologist for the defense diagnosed Arias with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and another psychotherapist who specializes in domestic violence testified that Arias was a victim of domestic violence. However, it was the prosecution’s witness and clinical psychologist that refuted the self-defense and PTSD claim and said that Arias actually suffered from borderline personality disorder and that no evidence was found that she her dead boyfriend and abused her. Ultimately, five of the twelve jurors found Arias guilty of premeditated murder and the seven other jurors found her guilty of both premeditated and felony murder. (1)

Andrea Yates Case

Another courtroom drama that made national headlines where the forensic psychologist played a key role in the outcome of the case was the Andrea Yates trial. The mother of five young children, Yates was accused of drowning her kids in a bathtub and used the insanity defense and claimed that she was suffering from severe postpartum depression. However, expert witness for the defense and famous forensic psychologist Dr. Park Dietz – who has testified in high profile criminal cases including Jeffrey Dahmer and the Unabomber – testified that Yates was not legally insane and eventually led to the jury rejecting the insanity please and convicting her to a life sentence. In a unexpected twist to the case, Yates was eventually granted an appeal after it was found that Dr. Dietz admitted to providing materially false testimony that had an influence over the juror’s decision. Yates was eventually found not guilty on account of insanity and was instead committed to a psychiatric facility. (2)

Elizabeth Smart Case

In the national kidnapping case of Elizabeth Smart, it was the forensic psychologist’s analysis and evaluation of the defendant that confirmed that the defendant was competent to stand trial. This was a major discovery in the case and a crucial piece of testimony that the state relied on in order to move the case forward since the defendant attempted to use the defense that he was not fit to stand trial. The forensic psychologist reviewed more than 200 sources of mental health and medical reports to come to his conclusion. The defendant was eventually sentenced to life in prison. (3)

Forensic psychologists play an important role in criminal and civil cases and sometimes that role leads to the outcome of the case. In other instances, these professionals help legal professionals and the court to have a better understanding of the individuals involved in a case.

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