Forensic psychology, a subfield of psychology, involves the application of psychological knowledge and methods to both civil and criminal legal questions. Traditionally, it has a broad definition as well as a narrow definition. The broader classification states that forensic psychology involves the application of all psychological areas of research to the legal field, while the narrower definition characterizes forensic psychology as "The application of clinical specialties to legal institutions and people who come into contact with the law." While the American Psychological Association (APA) officially recognized forensic psychology as a specialty under the narrower definition in 2001, the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists were revised in 2013 and now include all subfields of psychology (e.g. social, clinical, experimental, counseling, neuropsychology) that apply "the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law."
In addition to forensic psychology, legal psychology is practiced within the umbrella term of psychology and law as recognized by Division 41 of the APA, American Psychology-Law Society. Legal psychology, as a whole, focuses on many of the aspects that forensic psychology centers around--these being how psychology can be applied to the legal field. As such, these subfields can often be used interchangeably with the exception that legal psychology does not typically include clinical matters within its scope. These issues, in particular those directly relating to mental health, are best explained through forensic psychology.
Because forensic psychology is interlaced with the legal field, it requires an understanding of fundamental legal principles, such as those regarding standard legal practices and standards used by legal professionals, expert witness testimony, competence and insanity definitions and evaluations, and so on in order to be able to communicate effectively with judges, attorneys, and other legal professionals.
Psychology was established in the U.S. in 1879 by American students returning home from the study in German psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt's experimental psychology lab. Many of these returning students had interests in law (e.g. testimonies, individual's functional capacity) in addition to the schools of the field taught by Wundt. Nonetheless, the concept of psychology officially is it begging to use in legal settings, wasn't introduced until several years later, in the first decade of the 20th century by Hugo Münsterberg, the first director of Harvard's psychological laboratory and founder of applied psychology. Though he attempted to imbue his expertise in the legal field, his approach was reported as being condescending, abrasive, caused anger and scrutinization from the legal community toward his research. This community rejected Münsterberg's ideas in response, with some labeling it as Yellow Psychology, impractical, and exaggerated, although this interpretation of history has been challenged. Following this backlash psychology, was widely left untouched by legal professionals until post-WWII when clinical psychology became more accepted as a legitimate allied health profession and became more successful in contributing to legal proceedings. Whereas cases such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) led to the appreciation of psychology's ability to influence legal decisions, it was cases like Jenkins v. the U.S. (1962) that truly legitimized it. In this latter case, the D.C. Circuit upheld, for the first time, that clinical psychologists were to be considered expert witnesses when discussing mental illness.
The American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) was created in 1969 and was later converted into Division 41 of the APA in 1980. As the field continued to grow, more organizations dedicated to the study and application of psychology to the law began to develop. In 1976 the American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP) was chartered and eventually became a part of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1985. This merging marked the development of the first certification for psychologists wanting to work within the field of forensic psychology. Later organizations and conferences aided in solidifying the development of forensic psychology, such as the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and the National Invitational Conference on Education and Training in Forensic Psychology (1995). Forensic psychology was then officially recognized as a professional specialty under the APA in 2001.
Forensic psychology has seen a large spike in popularity, in the media and among younger generations within recent years. In fact, many undergraduate students are drawn to this subject under the misconception that forensic psychology is primarily used for criminal profiling. TV shows and movies such as Criminal Minds, Mindhunter, and Silence of The Lambs have widely popularized the practice of criminal profiling, particularly within the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). Despite the excitement given to the idea of a career in criminal profiling, students who show an interest in this particular aspect of forensic psychology come to find that the practice of criminal profiling is rarely used outside of the BAU.
In a broad sense, forensic psychology is a subset of applied psychology. Forensic psychologists may hold a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, social psychology, organizational psychology, school psychology, or experimental psychology. There are no specific license requirements in the United States to be a forensic psychologist. If one is a clinical-forensic psychologist, one would need a license to practice clinical or "health services", but an additional license to practice clinical-forensic psychology is not required. Psychologists who do not provide healthcare services do not need to be licensed at all in some states. Forensic psychologists ideally have some years of postdoctoral experience, training, and supervision or mentoring in forensic psychology.
In other countries, training and practitioner requirements may vary. In the United Kingdom, for example, a person must obtain the Graduate Basis for Registration with the British Psychological Society--normally through an undergraduate degree. This would be followed by Stages 1 (academic) and 2 (supervised practice) of the Diploma in Forensic Psychology (which would normally take 3 years full-time and 4 years part-time). Assessment occurs via examination, research, supervised practice, and the submission of a portfolio showing expertise across a range of criminological and legal applications of psychology. Once qualified as a "Chartered" psychologist (with a specialism in forensic psychology), a practitioner must engage in Continued Professional Development and demonstrate how much, of what kind, each year, in order to renew his/her practicing certificate.
Evaluations and assessments are completed by forensic psychologists to assess a person's psychological state for legal purposes. Reasons for completing these evaluations can involve acquiring information for criminal court (such as insanity or incompetence), for criminal sentencing or parole hearings (often regarding a potential intellectual disability that prevents sentencing or one's risk of recidivism), for family court (including child custody or parental termination cases), or civil court (involving personal injury or competence to decide). It is important to note that while a forensic psychologist is responsible for assessing and reporting results of an evaluation, the responsibility ends here. Any decisions made based on these reports from forensic psychologists are up to other legal professionals. This also means that any assessment made by an evaluator is not considered a counseling session, and therefore whatever is said or done is not confidential. It is the obligation of the evaluator to inform the individual being evaluated that everything in the session will be open to scrutiny in a forensic report or expert testimony. Forensic psychologists conducting evaluations may also function as expert witnesses as many are called into court to testify about the results of their evaluations. They have a variety of employment settings, such as forensic and state psychiatric hospitals, mental health centers, and private practice. Evaluators usually have had training as clinical psychologists.
Treatment providers may be asked to administer psychological interventions to those who require or request services in both criminal and civil cases. In regard to criminal cases, forensic psychologists can work with individuals who have already been sentenced to reduce recidivism, which refers to one's likelihood of repeating his or her offense. Other interventions that may be implemented in these settings are drug and alcohol abuse treatment, sex offender treatment, treatment for a mental illness, or anger management courses. As for civil proceedings, treatment providers may have to treat families going through divorce and/or custody cases. They may also provide treatment to individuals who have suffered psychological injuries as a result of some kind of trauma. Treatment providers and evaluators work in the same types of settings: forensic and state psychiatric hospitals, mental health centers, and private practices.
Providing consultations allows forensic psychologists to apply psychological expertise and research to help law enforcement, attorneys, and other legal professionals or proceedings better understand of human behavior (e.g. criminal, witness, victim, jury), civil processes, effects of trauma or other life events, and so on. If working as a consultant, a forensic psychologist is able to be involved in legal proceedings through responsibilities such as reviewing court records (such as a defendant's psychosocial history or assess mitigating or aggravating factors in a case), serving as a jury consultant (organizing focus groups, shadow juries, mock juries, or helping with the voir dire proceedings), and assessment without testimony (in which results of a defendant's evaluation are not disclosed to the prosecution team, allowing the defense team to develop a defense strategy), among others. Essentially, consultations can take a number of forms, including the common ones below:
Law Enforcement Consultations may take the form of assisting with criminal profiling, developing hiring procedures and methods, determining the psychological fitness of returning officers, or simply lending expertise on certain criminal behaviors. As mentioned above, criminal profiling is a very appealing aspect of psychology to prospective forensic psychologists despite the fact that it isn't very widely used within the field. There are several methods and approaches related criminal profiling, but there is still a lot of skepticism about the efficiency and accuracy of criminal profiling in general. A couple common approaches are the scientific approach, which includes the FBI's Crime Scene Analysis and Canter's investigative Psychology, and the intuitive approach, which includes Tukey's Behavioral Evidence Analysis.
Trial Consultants are psychologists who work with legal professionals, such as attorneys, to aid in case preparation. This includes jury selection, development of case strategy, and witness preparation. Forensic psychologists working as trial consultants rely on research in order to best advise the individuals they are working with. Because trial consultants are often hired by one specific side in a trial, these psychologists are faced with many ethical issues. It is the responsibility of the psychologist to remain neutral when consulting--in other words, the consultant must not choose a side to support and consequentially omit or create information that would be beneficial to one side or another. Prior to accepting a case to work on, it is important that the forensic psychologist weigh the responsibilities of consulting on that case with the ethical guidelines put in place for the field of forensic psychology.
Expert Testimony about matters relating to psychology is also an area in which forensic psychologists play an active role. Unlike fact witnesses, who are limited to testifying about what they know or have observed, expert witnesses have the ability to express further knowledge of a situation or topic because, as their name suggests, they are presumed to be "experts" in a certain topic and possess specialized knowledge about it. Expert witnesses in forensic psychology are called upon to testify on matters of mental health (clinical expertise) or other areas of expertise such as social, experimental, cognitive, or developmental. The role of being an expert witness is not primary and it is usually performed in conjunction with another role such as that of researcher, academic, evaluator, or clinical psychologist. In the past, expert witnesses primarily served the court rather than the litigants. However, nowadays that rarely happens and most of the recruitment for expert witness is completed by trial attorneys. But regardless of who calls in the expert, it is the judge who determines whether or not the expert witness will be accepted.
Forensic psychologist researchers make scientific discoveries relevant to psychology and the law. These professionals usually have an advanced degree in Psychology (most likely a PhD). While their main focus is research, it is not unusual for them to take on any of the other positions of forensic psychologists. These professionals may be employed at various settings, which include colleges and universities, research institutes, government or private agencies, and mental health agencies. Forensic psychology research pertains to psychology and the law, whether it be criminal or civil. Researchers test hypotheses empirically and apply the research to issues related to psychology and the law. They may also conduct research on mental health law and policy evaluation. Some famous psychologists in the field include Saul Kassin, very widely known for studying false confessions, and Elizabeth Loftus and Gary Wells, both known for their research on eyewitness memory. These and other researchers have provided expert witness testimony for many cases.
Academic forensic psychologists engage in teaching, researching, training, and supervision of students, among other education-related activities. These professionals also have an advanced degree in Psychology (most likely a PhD) and are most often employed at colleges and universities. In addition to holding professorships, forensic psychologists may engage in education through presenting research, hosting talks relating to a particular subject, or engaging with and educating the community about a relevant forensic psychological topic. Advocacy is another form of education, in which forensic psychologists use psychological research to influence laws and policies. These may be related to certain movements, such as Black Lives Matter or the Me Too movement, or may even be related to certain civil rights that are being overlooked.
Competence, in a legal setting, refers to the defendant's ability to appreciate and understand the charges against them and what is happening in the legal proceedings, as well as their ability to help the attorney understand and defend his or her case. While competence is assessed by a psychologist, its concern regarding a defendant is typically voiced by the attorney. Though it is the psychologist's responsibility to assess for competence, it is ultimately up to the judge to decide whether the defendant is competent or not. If the defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, the psychologist must then give a recommendation on whether or not the defendant can be restored to competence through treatment or if the charges should be dropped completely due to incompetence. A couple potential causes of incompetence includes certain types of brain damage or the occurrence of a psychotic episode preventing the individual from registering the reality around them.
Several cases were instrumental in developing a standard for competence, as well as for determining the rights of an individual deemed incompetent to stand trial. Youtsey v. United States (1899) was one of the cases that set the standard for competence, with the judge ruling that trying or sentencing an individual deemed incompetent violates their human rights. Despite this ruling, no official guidelines for determining and sentencing matters of competence were developed. In Dusky v. United States (1960), the case upheld the Youtsey v. United States ruling and set specific criteria for competence. These include having a rational and factual understanding of court proceedings and being able to consult with an attorney in a rational manner. The case of Weiter v. Settle (1961) resulted in the decision that a psychologist's opinion in a competency hearing is considered "opinion testimony." Additionally, guidelines were put in place to accurately evaluate competency. The eight guidelines established include requirements that the defendant appreciates one's own presence in relation to time, place, and things; understands that she is in a Court of Justice, charged with a criminal offense; recognizes that there is a Judge who presides over the Court; understands that there is a Prosecutor who will try to convict him of criminal charges; understands that she has a lawyer who will defend her against that charge; knows that he is expected to tell his attorney what he was doing at the time of the alleged offense; understands that a jury will determine whether she is guilty or innocent of the charges; and has sufficient memory to discuss issues related to the alleged offense and the court proceedings. As time has progressed, more cases have added to these guidelines and expectations when evaluating competency.
Insanity, as opposed to competence, refers to an individual's mental state at the time of the crime rather than at the time of the trial. According to legal principles of insanity, it is only acceptable to judge, find someone criminally responsible, and/or punish a defendant if that individual was sane at the time of the crime. In order to be considered sane, the defendant must have exhibited both mens rea and actus reus. Mens rea, translated to "guilty mind" indicates that the individual exhibited free will and some intent to do harm at the time of the crime. Actus reus refers to the voluntary committing of an unlawful act. The insanity defense acknowledges that, while an unlawful act did occur, the individual displayed a lack of mens rea. The burden of proof in determining if a defendant is insane lies with the defense team. A notable case relating to this type of assessment is that of Ford v. Wainwright, in which it was decided that forensic psychologists must be appointed to assess the competency of an inmate to be executed in death penalty cases.
There are various definitions of insanity acknowledged within the legal system. The M'Naghten/McNaugton rule (1843) defines insanity as the individual not understanding the nature and quality of his or her acts or that these acts were wrong due to a mental disease or defect. This is also referred to as the cognitive capacity test. Meanwhile, the Durham Test (established in Durham v. United States, 1954) states that one can be declared insane if the actions were caused by a mental disorder. The vague nature of this description causes this definition to only be used in one state (NH). The final definition acknowledged within the courts is the Brawner Rule (U.S. v. Brawner, 1972), also referred to as the American Law Institute Standard. This definition posits that, due to a mental disease or defect, an individual is considered insane if unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of an act and are unable to conform their behavior to the dictates of the law.
Evaluating insanity involves using crime scene analysis to determine the mental state at the time of the crime, establishing a diagnosis, interviewing the defendant and any other relevant witnesses, and verifying impressions of the defendant. Challenges associated with this type of assessment involve defendant malingering, determining the defendant's past mental state, the chance that different experts may come to different conclusions depending on the assessment method used, and the fact that it is very common for society to label any psychological disorder as insane (though few actually fall into this category; insanity primarily involves psychotic disorders).
Risk assessment evaluates how dangerous an individual is/could be and the risk of their re-offending after being released, also referred to as recidivism. Typically, recidivism refers to violent or sex offending behavior. Risk assessments affect the possibility of an inmate receiving parole and/or being released from prison and involve two general methods. The clinical prediction method involves using clinical judgement and experience to predict risk, while the actuarial prediction method utilizes a research-based formula to predict risk. Two specific methods of risk assessment involve the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG) and the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORGA), both created by Quinsey, Harris, Rice, & Cormier in 1998.
While insanity and competency assessments are among the most common criminal assessments administered within the legal system, there are several other types implemented. Some of these include death penalty case assessments, assessments of child sexual abuse, assessments for child custody or divorce cases, and civil court assessments.
A forensic psychologist's interactions with and ethical responsibilities to the client differ widely from those of a psychologist dealing with a client in a clinical setting.
When the nature and cause of death remain unknown from the immediate and apparent features of death, especially due to the lack of direct evidence to fix whether the unnatural death is accidental, suicide or murder, the Psychological or Psychiatric Autopsy can be employed as an effective tool for death investigation.
The 'psychological autopsy' is a procedure for investigating a person's death by reconstructing what the person thought, felt and did preceding his or her death. This reconstruction is based upon information gathered from personal documents, police reports, medical and corner's records and face to face interview with families, friends and others who had contact with the person before the death.1
While a medico-legal autopsy examines the body of the deceased, a psychological autopsy considers the mental state of the deceased. When there is conflict or absence of leads which indicate the circumstances pointing towards more than one possibility of mode of death, if said more specifically, the manner of death is suspicious and giving divergent indications, this tool of investigation can be employed with team work of Forensic Psychiatrists, Forensic Pathologists, Toxicologists and Psychologists to compile information about the behaviours and motive to distinguish among accident, homicide and suicide as possible modes of death.
The theory underlying the concept of psychological autopsy is that most suicide victims communicate their intentions in some way. While the technique was developed as a clinical tool for predicting suicide risk, its forensic application has been the retrospective determination of the cause or circumstances surrounding a death. This branch of investigation was originally developed by Edwin Shneidman and his colleagues in Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center during 1950s.
The psychological autopsy methodology2 involves two main elements: 1. Extensive interviews of family members and other close intimates; and 2. Collecting all possible medical, Psychiatric and other relevant documents of the deceased.
Psychological autopsies review the specifics of the death and the decedent for suicide risk factors. Shneidman for example, has identified 14 areas for inquiry in psychological autopsy studies. These areas include: 1. Identifying information (e.g., age, marital status, religious practices, occupation) 2. Details of the death 3. Brief outline of the victim's history (e.g., previous suicide attempts) 4. Death history of the victim's family (e.g., family history of suicide, affective illness) 5. Description of the personality and lifestyle of the victim 6. The victim's typical pattern of reaction to stress, emotional upsets, and periods of disequilibrium 7. Recent stressors, tensions, or anticipations of troubles 8. The role of alcohol and drugs in the overall lifestyle of the victim and his/her death 9. The nature of the victim's interpersonal relationship 10. Changes in the victim's habits and routines before death (e.g., hobbies, appetite, sexual patterns, and other life routines) 11. Information relating to the life side of the victim (e.g., upswings, successes, plans) 12. Assessment of intention 13. Rating of lethality 14. Reaction of informants to the victim's death, and 15. Any comments or special features of the case.
The information collected from the interviews could provide relevant information in an attempt to reconstruct the deceased's background, personal relationships, personality traits and lifestyle.
Psychological autopsies have proved helpful in identifying and explicating proximate causation, determining the role of a variety of factors in bringing about a suicide death.
The usual sources of psychological information3 are 1. Suicide Note:- Interpretation of suicide note is important to confirm suicide or abetment of suicide or homicides or to identify causation. The correct interpretation of suicide's note requires handwriting expert to confirm that note is written by the offenders/subject as its contents may reveal the following:-
(a) Intention :- It is reflected form suicide note that the individual has billed himself. This intention is strengthened by history of previous attempts.
(b) Physical illness :- The changes in handwriting; for example tremors (due to alcoholism, drug poisoning, fear or anxiety ) or changes of size of letters ( gradually becoming small due to intake of antipsychotic drug) may indicate presented of physical illness.
(c) Psychiatric illness :- The contents of suicide note may indicate the presence of psychiatric disorder; for example schizophrenia.
(d):- Situational Factor :- Whether the individual is threatened or suicide note; is dictated.
Ex: good content by an illiterate individual, repeated cutting or suicide pact [suicide note signed by more than one individual or simple contents in different notes], or suicide intent of another person or abetment of suicide. 2. School/College Records:- Information such as change in academic performance or recent absences and tardiness. 3. Medical Records:- Family history, visits to physician, illness and medication taken and referrals to specialists 4. Police Records: - May give the information about his previous attempts of suicide and involvement in anti-social activities. The psychological autopsy is accomplished through reconstruction of the decedent's character or personality from information gained from a variety of sources. This reconstructed character or personality is then used to make a retrospective prediction of the likelihood of the decedent's having committed a particular act 4. If the data collected and the analysis of same conclude that there is no indication of suicide, the possibility of the decedent to commit suicide shall be ruled out. Advantages of psychological autopsy:- By collecting information from the people who are maintaining direct or indirect interactions, the personality of the decedent is most accurately described and assessed, which becomes the most significant inputs to evaluate the thought process and traits of the decedent prior to death. The evaluation involves the understanding of intention and motive, if it is a suicide. If the autopsy negates the suicide, it shall definitely be a step stone for the investigators to proceed with the investigation of death by excluding the theory of suicide in the incident. So the psychological autopsy provide a firm indication to which directions death investigation, shall be proceeded.
Though psychological autopsy can be taken an effective tool for suspicious death investigation, it is not free from disadvantages and limitations. Availability and selection of experts/professionals who are potential by holding research oriented experience is always an important hurdle to get over. The professional ethics and physician - patient privileges are always a difficult barrier to get valuable and important inputs. The end process of the psychological autopsy is the retrospective prediction whether the subject has committed suicide or not. But this process is being carried out by the experts who had no occasion to meet and interview the decedent in his life time. The experts gather the information from third parties and documents, which could be considered as hearsay information which diminishes the evidentiary value. There is no standardised operational method to derive conclusions out of the information collected during the course of psychological autopsy. It has to be drawn up by the professional much based on his experience to correlate the inputs.
The psychological autopsy is one of the effective tools in death investigation. It could act as a firm step stone for the investigation into the suspicious unnatural death where direct evidence is not available. A systematically carried out psychological autopsy would definitely provide more scientific and accurate leads in death investigation.
In India, the employment of this branch of Forensic Psychiatry is less used. On 12.02.2016 the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam, Kerala has directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to employ Forensic Psychological Autopsy in the death of investigation of Qazi C.M.Abdulla Maulavi of Chembarika. Thereafter in Sunanda Pushkar Death case the Special Team for investigation has employed the Psychiatric Autopsy and concluded that it was a suicide. Another incident of employing this tool was in the Burari Death case in Delhi, in which 11 members of a family were found dead by hanging on 01/07/2018. The questions in these cases are to be answered was whether it is a suicide or homicide. The availability of experts in this area including experienced suicidologists is a concern of the time, as numerous reports are there regarding the increasing incidents of suicide. So there shall be sufficient concern for the state of establish research centres and institutions concentrated in this branch of forensic psychiatry.
Another aspect of concern is the extension of rigor to the hearsay rule in accepting the information and conclusions in psychological autopsy. The opinion evidence given by the experts who conducted the systematic psychological autopsy shall be given due weightage taking the purview under Section 45 of the Evidence Act,1872.
The ethical recommendations and expectations outlined for forensic psychology specifically are listed in the APA's Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. These guidelines involve reminders that forensic psychologists should value integrity, impartiality, and fairness, as well as avoid conflicts of interest when possible. These conflicts of interest may arise in situations in which the psychologist is working as a consultant to one side or another in a court case, when the psychologist is required to testify or evaluate something that collides with their own beliefs or values, or when a psychologist is faced with the decision of choosing between playing the role of an individual's evaluator or treatment provider in a case. This final conflict of interest also relates to the ethical guidelines relating to having multiple relationships with clients. Also as a standard of ethics, forensic psychologists are expected to offer a certain amount of reduced fee or pro bono services for individuals who may not be able to afford hiring a psychologist for a court case otherwise. Other ethical guidelines involve receiving informed consent from clients before communicating information regarding their treatment or evaluations, respecting and acknowledging privacy/confidentiality/privilege among clients, remaining impartial and objective when involved in a trial, and weighing the moral and ethical costs of complying with any court orders that may conflict with professional standards.