Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology


Book cover: The Mad, The Bad, And The Innocent
The Mad, The Bad, And The
by Barbara R.

Psychologists are generally drawn into a case through an attorney, although sometimes they are court-appointed.  They may have done some networking to notify attorneys of their availability, but they might also be called upon because of expertise in some area, such as women who kill their babies or post traumatic stress disorder.  Barbara Kirwin offers a description of several types of such situations in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent.  An attorney will contact the psychologist, describe the case, and offer to set up an appointment with the client.  Prior to starting a clinical interview, the psychologist must inform the client that anything said or written down is for the court and may be entered into the legal process.  Most often in criminal cases, these referrals will involve a competency hearing or a "mental state at the time of the offense" (MSO) determination. 

Theodore Kaczynski
Theodore Kaczynski

Between 1978 and 1995, Ted Kaczynski had constructed and mailed lethal bombs that killed three people and injured twenty-three others.  Finally, after his brother told police that he recognized the style in the Unabomber's manifesto, printed in the New York Times, Kaczynski was arrested in Sacramento, California, in April 1996.  By early 1998, Kaczynski was on conflict with his defense team.  His attorneys hoped to mount a mental illness defense, as Kaczynski had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he refused.  He then asked to represent himself.  That meant a competency hearing, and while he was considered competent to stand trial, his request to go pro se -- represent himself -- was denied.  Kaczynski saw no way out of accepting an insanity defense, since the court had appointed his attorneys, so he pleaded guilty to 13 of the charges in exchange for a life sentence with no possibility of parole. 

Rorschach sketch
Rorschach sketch

For any type of assessment, the psychologist's first task is to collect information.  They have the attorney's resources at their disposal, so they provide a list of what they need, such as school and hospital records, work appraisals, military records, crime scene photos, autopsy reports, and witness statements, and the attorney must do his best to get them.  They also gain information from their clinical interviews and mental status examinations of the defendant.  They will avoid information illegally acquired because it will jeopardize the admissibility of the entire report, and they will decide on the best ways to acquire details specific to their expertise.  In other words, they subject the person to clinical evaluations. 

Book cover: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales
Wechsler Adult Intelligence

Forensic assessment involves intelligence, personality, projective, and motor skills assessment tests.  The most common battery includes the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales, The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory -2, the Rorschach, the Thematic Apperception Test, and when organic damage is suspected, the Bender-Gestalt and the Halstead-Reitan neuropsychological battery of assessments.  Each mental health expert acquires proficiency with, and preference for, a certain selection of assessment examinations.  Due to admissibility issues and the subjective nature of interpretations, some assessments are more easily used for court purposes than others.

Thematic Apperception Test
Thematic Apperception Test

One important consideration when testing a defendant for a diminished mental capacity or insanity plea is to check for malingering--the faking of symptoms.  Several tests include scales that indicate lying, exaggeration, faking bad, and faking good.  Those people with something to gain, such as avoiding a trial or the death penalty, may have learned about exceptions for mental illness.  However, the tests may catch them faking because their ideas about the symptoms are often based on popular misconceptions.

Book cover: The Halstead-Reitan Neuropsychological Test Battery
The Halstead-Reitan Neuro-
psychological Test Battery

Of the types of evaluations offered for the court, mental and intellectual competence is the most basic initial issue.

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