Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Psychological Detectives

Dr. Watson & Sherlock Holmes
Dr. Watson & Sherlock Holmes

Dr. John Watson, sidekick to and fictional narrator for the Sherlock Holmes stories, notes a case called "The Adventure of the Speckled Band."  Helen Stoner comes to relate her dilemma: her sister Julia had died mysteriously in her bedroom just before her wedding, and now Helen is about to be married.  She resides temporarily in the ill-fated bedroom and she fears she may suffer the same fate as her sister.  She shares the home with her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, an eccentric man who has spent time in India. Before dying, Julia had told Helen about an odd whistle that she'd been hearing at night, around 3:00 A.M.  On the night she died, she had cried out, "It was the speckled band!"  No one could fathom what she meant.  Nor could the coroner find a clear cause of death.

Holmes checks the crime scene and finds several odd factors: a bell-pull by the bed that doesn't work, the bed itself fastened to the floor, and worn spots on a chair in the step-father's room next door that indicated someone standing on the seat.  Watson remarks that Holmes has evidently observed more in these rooms than others have.  He responds that he has observed the same things; he has merely deduced more.  He then learns what he can about Roylott and finally determines the nature of the crime: Julia was bitten by a trained poisonous snake.  To make his deduction, Holmes uses information he has learned about the stepfather's background and potential motive for murder (inheritance), the oddities in Julia's bedroom, her dying words, and the condition of Roylott's chair.  Holmes looked into behavioral clues to derive psychological conclusions that led to his final analysis.  And he was correct.  

Book cover: Criminal Shadows
Book cover: Criminal

In Britain, Holmes's country, there is a program, run by David Canter, for becoming a psychological investigator.  He describes his work in Criminal Shadows.  Like Holmes, this kind of person is a hybrid between a psychologist and detective, although not quite fully either one.  Such professionals might help the police to interpret a crime scene in a way that's like profiling but may go beyond that function, too.  They cannot yet testify in a U. S. court

Yet some psychologists get involved with psychological autopsies.   In cases where the manner of death is unexplained, such as someone hit by a car, and it's not clear whether it was a suicide, homicide, natural, or accidental, a psychological autopsy may be needed to assist the coroner or medical examiner in clearing up the mystery.   The idea is to discover the deceased's state of mind preceding death and the results may be used to settle criminal cases, estate issues, malpractice suits, or insurance claims.  It may also solve other types of mysteries, such as why Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris decided to attack their high school in Littleton Colorado in 1999.  No one was in doubt about how the died -- suicide -- but people wanted to know what had brought them to the point of killing their classmates and then killing themselves.  The Threat Assessment Group performed a psychiatric autopsy for this purpose.

Eric Harris (left) & Dylan Klebold
Eric Harris (left) & Dylan Klebold

First used during the 1950s in Los Angeles, psychological autopsies are becoming a standard resource for examining undetermined deaths.   To resolve doubt, an investigator will examine numerous factors to make the proper determination about state of mind and degree of lethality.  In a suspected suicide, for example, it's important to rule out accident and such unfortunate incidents as autoerotic asphyxiation.  The database generally consists of an examination of the death scene; a study of all documentation pertaining to the death, such as witness statements and police reports; interviews with family members and associates; medical autopsy reports; and all relevant documents pertaining to the individual's life history, like school or employment records. 

Similarly, psychologists must gather a great deal of information in order to perform the next function, the evaluation of people who may decide important cases.