by Fabiola Fleuranvil, June 2014
Courtroom 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.
What is the role of a forensic psychologist?
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 of the court dramas that has recently made national headlines is the Jodi Arias murder case. Arias was charged with 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 discredited by the evidence provided by the prosecution. Arguably, the testimony of each side’s expert witnesses was exposed in court.
The defense forensic psychologist diagnosed Arias with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and another psychotherapist specializing in domestic violence testified that Arias was a victim of domestic violence. However, it was the prosecution witness and clinical psychologist who refuted the claim of self-defense and PTSD. They mentioned that Arias actually suffered from a borderline personality disorder and that no evidence was found that her deceased boyfriend abused her.
Ultimately, five of the twelve jurors found Arias guilty of premeditated murder and the other seven found her guilty of both premeditated and felony murder. (Source: abcnews)
Andrea Yates Case
Another court drama that made national headlines and in which the forensic psychologist played a key role in the outcome of the case was the trial of Andrea Yates. A mother of five young children, Yates was accused of drowning her children in a bathtub and used the insanity defense and claimed she was suffering from severe postpartum depression.
However, a defense expert witness and famed forensic psychologist, Dr. Park Dietz – who has testified in high-profile criminal cases such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the Unabomber – testified that Yates was not legally insane and ultimately caused the jury to reject the insanity plea and sentence her to life in prison. In an unexpected twist to the case, Yates was eventually granted an appeal after it was discovered that Dr. Dietz admitted to providing materially false testimony that influenced the jury’s decision. Ultimately, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric facility. (Source: abcnews)
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.
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. (Source: abcnews)
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