Given that forensic psychology involves the application of psychology to the legal system, it is not surprising that much of the work of forensic psychologists involves assisting specific legal actors. In this section, we discuss the different ways in which forensic psychologists may assist law enforcement agencies, attorneys, litigants, and others.
Assisting Law Enforcement
Within the area of policing and law enforcement, psychologists may play a variety of roles. A large body of research exists that establishes psychologists’ potential to assess law enforcement officers in matters of investigation and interrogation (Bartol, 1996). Once a crime is reported, law enforcement officials conduct an investigation to establish whether a crime has in fact been committed, whether it can be solved, and whether they can obtain evidence to facilitate a prosecution. At the level of investigation, a number of popular books, television shows, and movies depict criminal profilers. James Brussel (1968), a psychiatrist who began consulting to the New York City Police Department in the 1950s, described the first case in which he was asked to assist the police. The “Mad Bomber of New York” detonated more than 20 bombs in theaters, transportation terminals, libraries, and offices around New York City for 16 years during the 1940s and 1950s.
Despite notes and letters mailed to them by the bomber, the police were at a loss to identify a suspect and eventually consulted Brussel, who examined the evidence the police had collected, including the notes, letters, and photographs and details of the crime scenes. Brussel developed a precise “criminal profile” of the bomber, which turned out to closely match the characteristics of the man the police eventually apprehended and prosecuted. Since that time, the field of criminal profiling has developed. Of course, in many cases, the efforts of psychologists and psychiatrists have not been so successful (Holloway, 2003; Porter, 1983), and there remains concern that criminal profiling is nothing more than so-called smoke and mirrors (Hicks & Sales, 2006; Snook, Cullen, Bennell, Taylor, & Gendreau, 2008).
In reality, most criminal profilers are police officers, but forensic psychologists sometimes are called on to assist with investigations (Douglas, Ressler, Burgess, & Hartman, 1986). Over time, investigative psychology and offender profiling have developed into an area of forensic psychology with an empirical base, and modern approaches to offender profiling are far removed from the early speculative approaches that are still so often depicted in television and film (Alison & Rainbow, 2011; Canter & Youngs, 2009).
Psychologists have also conducted research to investigate the efficacy of police interviews (McLean, 1995) and assist police with interviewing witnesses and suspects, including child victims and witnesses (Cronch, Viljoen, & Hansen, 2006; Wilson & Powell, 2001). This work assists police in developing interviewing skills for use with witnesses and suspects that will maximize the amount of accurate information that is obtained and minimize bias and error.
In addition to direct involvement with police with respect to conducting investigations and questioning witnesses and suspects, psychologists are involved in a range of other activities. Psychologists may be called on to assist the police in their interactions with persons with mental disorders (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2010; Kesic, Thomas, & Ogloff, 2013; Ogloff et al., 2013). A great deal of work has also been done to assist law enforcement agencies with respect to screening, selection, and recruitment of police candidates (e.g., Corey & Borum, 2013; Craig, 2005) and providing critical mental health services to sworn officers and their families. We now turn to a brief review of the roles psychologists play in assisting attorneys.
Psychologists frequently provide consultation to attorneys with respect to case formulation and jury matters (Posey & Wrightsman, 2005). To this end, some psychologists assist attorneys in conceptualizing and presenting cases in a way that will be most advantageous to their clients. Moreover, a growing area of study focuses on the psychology of the jury, in which psychologists assist attorneys by developing strategies for selecting and working with juries. Indeed, the area of psychological trial consulting and scientific jury selection has grown significantly over the past two decades.
Psychologists can assist attorneys by helping them conceptualize their case in a way that will be most compelling for the jury. Trial consultants argue that, because attorneys develop specialized legal knowledge, they may not be able to conceptualize cases or present them in a way that will be best understood by the jury. Research shows that jurors use a so-called story model to assist them to make sense of the facts presented at trial (Pennington & Hastie, 1986). According to this model, after hearing the evidence at trial and being provided the legal instructions by the judge at the end of the trial, jurors attempt to find the best match between the arguments made by the competing attorneys and the verdict options. To this end, it is important that attorneys conceptualize and explain the case (i.e., “tell the story”) in a way that the jury understands and that will best fit the verdict option that suits their clients. Relying on general decision-making research and surveys or questionnaires that may be developed for the case at hand, psychologists can assist attorneys by helping them understand how jurors may make sense of and consider the evidence and crafting their arguments accordingly (Brodsky, 2009). More recently, psychologists acting as trial consultants have begun to assist attorneys in presenting the information to the jury using modern technology to maximize the effectiveness of their arguments (e.g., PowerPoint presentations, computer simulations).
Beyond assisting attorneys in conceptualizing the case and presenting information to jurors in the most compelling manner, psychologists may assist attorneys with jury selection. In the United States, the jury is selected in a process known as the voir dire, during which potential jurors are questioned by the judge or attorneys in order to ensure that a fair and impartial jury is empaneled. As such, jurors may be “challenged for cause” in cases where it is determined that a juror has preexisting beliefs that would prevent him or her from making a decision in the case based solely on the evidence presented. In addition to challenges for cause, attorneys may challenge a designated number of prospective jurors in each case without providing a justification. (These are known as peremptory challenges.) With peremptory challenges, prospective jurors may be excluded “without a reason stated, without inquiry, and without being subject to the Court’s control” (Swain v. Alabama, 1965, p. 219).
When empaneling a jury, attorneys may rely on forensic psychologists to assist them in selecting the most desirable jurors (i.e., jurors most likely to be sympathetic to their claims/arguments and reach a verdict in their favor) and deselecting the least desirable jurors (i.e., jurors least likely to be sympathetic to their claims/arguments and reach a verdict in their favor). (For summaries, see Kovera, 2012) Typically, psychologists survey members of the community about matters pertaining to a case in order to identify those characteristics that relate attitudes about the case and case outcomes (e.g., older people may be less accepting of illegally downloading media from the Internet than younger people). Consultants may also use focus groups to obtain additional information about the views of people regarding matters at issue in the particular case and how prospective jurors may respond to different arguments. Based on the results of the surveys, psychologists can help identify the characteristics of people who would be more or less likely to make a decision in favor of their client. Then, during voir dire, potential jurors would be asked a series of questions designed to identify sympathetic and unsympathetic jurors. Research shows that, without assistance, attorneys may not be very skilled at identifying jurors who might be biased against their clients (Olczak, Kaplan, & Penrod, 1991). Although the empirical evidence shows an increased likelihood that jurors will find in favor of the side that employs jury consultants, the results vary across studies and in actual cases— particularly since both sides may use consultants (Kressel & Kressel, 2004; Posey & Wrightsman, 2005).
In addition to the strategies just outlined, psychologists who work as jury consultants sometimes employ mock or shadow juries (Brodsky, 2009). The use of mock juries involves bringing a group of jury eligible people together, presenting them with case information in order to determine how various arguments and presentations affect their thinking and decision making, and shaping the case presentation accordingly. The complexity and sophistication of mock juries can vary from providing the participants with a summary of information about the case to actually having attorneys present their arguments in a mock trial format. Finally, during the course of the trial, jury consultants sometimes employ “shadow jurors” who sit in the courtroom throughout the trial, listen to the arguments and evidence, and provide the consultant with their perceptions and opinions as the trial proceeds. The attorneys then use this information to shape their subsequent presentations and strategies (Brodsky, 2009).
Return to overview of What is Forensic Psychology.