Programs that specialize in the training of forensic psychology scientists face specific training challenges. In order to perform useful forensic psychological research on a topic, a forensic training program must first teach its students how to identify the questions that the law needs answered by psychological science. For example, in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), Kemp, an African American, was charged with murder of a White man. The defense introduced the testimony of an expert to support its claim that the Georgia death penalty statute and process discriminated against the defendant. Although the expert had analyzed 2,000 death penalty decisions from Georgia courts, the U.S. Supreme Court was not persuaded, noting, among other things, that the case was brought on a challenge to the Georgia death penalty statute under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. This clause requires not only a showing of discrimination but also a showing that the discrimination was intentional. Although the social science data demonstrated a relationship between death penalty decisions and defendant and victim race, the data did not address whether the discrimination was intentional. In the end, the Court was unpersuaded by the data presented because they did not specifically address this latter issue.
Training programs must teach their students how to identify issues that are testable through psychological science techniques and are also important to legal proceedings. In order to accomplish this goal, students must be taught to operationalize difficult legal constructs in such a way that meaningful empirical examination can occur. Without the ability to operationalize these concepts effectively, it is impossible to measure and study appropriate legal concepts using available psychological techniques and methodology (Krauss & Sales, 2003).
Some scholars argue that it is not always possible to operationalize legal concepts using psychological science because legal standards often include moral and normative judgments that are impossible to evaluate effectively with psychological methodology (Grisso, 1986,2003). This does not suggest, however, that operationalization and empirical investigation of legal questions are inappropriate or unimportant. Rather, it suggests that empirical research must be seen as a means to enhance and inform judicial and legal decision making rather than as a substitute for it (Krauss & Sales, 2003). Student awareness and understanding of these issues then is a necessary precondition to useful forensic psychological research being performed; students must not only understand how to test important legal issues effectively but also recognize the limitations of empirical research to answer all legal questions.
For example, the law does not always allow for experimentation in legal settings. As a result, researchers often are left with no choice but to use simulated research in artificial settings. This often is the case, for instance, in jury research. It typically is conducted using college students who are exposed to a brief transcript in a laboratory setting. The result is that the research, although internally valid, lacks ecological validity (i.e., realism) and external validity (i.e., the results lack generalizability to other settings).
It is not only the use of simulations that leads to compromised findings for the implementation of legal policy, however. Even ecologically valid research can lack external validity. The results of studying mediation in one jurisdiction may not be generalizable to other jurisdictions because of differences in mediators and mediation procedures (Beck & Sales, 2001). Thus, it is important that in training forensic psychology scientists and in educating the consumers of their research, training programs include specific educational opportunities that focus on understanding the needs of the law and how research can and cannot address those needs under varying conditions.