By definition, Forensic Psychology is the application of psychological theory and knowledge to the courts of law. But how they are applied to general forensics? What areas it covers and what are the importance of psychology in Forensics and law will be discussed in the following text.
In short, the following are the ways forensic psychology and psychologist help judicial systems:
1. Developing Criminal Profiles
Criminal profiling refers to inferring the offender’s personality based on the nature and characteristics of the crime they committed.
Before creating a profile, a thorough investigation of:
- The nature of the crime,
- Types of perpetrators,
- Crime scene,
- Victim’s history and activities,
- Related cases and suspects, and
- Motives involved
Finally, an offender profile is created using overall traits associated with their psychological makeup.
For example: In a homicide case, FBI agents learn about the offender’s personality at the four stages of crime.
- What fantasies, plans, or combinations of the two did the murderer have in mind before the crime? What led the murderer to act some days and not others?
- What kind(s) of victims did the murderer choose? Method and manner of murder –whether by gunfire, knife, strangulation, etc.
- Corpse disposal: Did the murder and body removal occur at one site or different locations?
- Does the murderer react to news coverage or contact the police to become involved in the investigation?
However, in any case, every psychologist needs specialized skills and training to get relevant information about the case. Sometimes, it is valuable and inevitable to gather data from the client’s friends, family, and colleagues to arrive at a proper conclusion.
2. Helps to Ascertain Malingering
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DMS-V) defines “Malingering” as the intentional production of false or grossly physical or psychological symptoms motivated by external incentives.
In simple terms, “Malingering” means “pretending to be ill in order to escape duty,work, or punishment.“
Malingering affects how justice is carried out in the criminal and judicial systems.
For example, malingering in cases of insanity or incapacity can cause the prosecution to be delayed for months or years and frequently leads to unneeded hospitalizations.
Therefore, creating effective psychological malingering detection techniques will help the criminal justice system and society. E.g., TOMM (Tests of memory malingering), Rey Fifteen–Item Test, etc.
3. Assessments of What One Speak
Psychologists use various assessment methods to assist the court and make a final decision. Some psychological assessments conducted in forensic science laboratories include:
It is a device used for deception through changes in psychological indicators such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity.
The person is asked to answer a series of question and change in these psychological indicators are measured as the indicator of a lie.
Through intravenous administration of truth Serum (sodium pentothal/sodium amytal /scopolamine), a person’s ability to reason and pretense is prevented (the subject’s imagination is neutralized). Truth is obtained in this process.
C. Brain Fingerprinting
It helps to detect whether an individual has any experiential knowledge in the commission of the crime by triggering the neurons.
This will generate p300 brainwaves only if the subject has a connection with the stimulus (picture or sound or any other information from the crime scene).
D. Layered Voice Analysis
Detects changes in emotions in a person’s voice, like whether the person is under stress or relief, etc., regardless of their language or tone of speech.
This technology uses natural emotional reflex that reveals the speaker’s correct sensations and feelings.
Every assessment will depend upon the psychologist’s existing knowledge, preference, suitability, and experience and the uniqueness of each case.
4. Psychological Autopsy
Another critical area where forensic psychological assessment can be used in the examination of suicide is psychological autopsy.
A psychological autopsy is a process by which an investigator and mental health experts analyze the situations that led the person to commit suicide or determine the state of mind of a person before they died.
The psychological autopsy can be used to find the possible causes of his last action (suicide) and also helps to prevent such incidents in the future.
This can be done by studying the wound pattern analysis, the victim’s state of mind, and the victim’s mental health history.
- Wound patterns such as hesitation marks and environment should be carefully analyzed.
- Victim’s state of mind can be depicted by a complete background study of the victim’s history and personality (victimology).
- Vitim’s mental health history must be defined by the medical and mental health interactions.
Psychological autopsy example: Technique also aided in investigating the deaths (or cases) of:
- Sushant Singh Rajput, an Indian actor.
- Anthony Bourdain, an American chef
- Kurt Cobain, a lead guitarist, and vocalist of Nirvana, an American rock band.
5. Parole and Early Release
Prisons are overcrowded, and the rate of recidivist criminals (convicted criminals to re-offend) is a significant concern. Some reports such as:
- North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission report of 2022, the recidivist incarceration rate for inmates released from prison was 41%.
- Similarly, juvenile offenders in India is 7.2% (NCRB, 2018).
Forensic psychologists will report the prisoner’s state of mind based on which parole can be granted or rejected.
During the assessment, the psychologist assesses the prisoner’s chances of recidivism.
It is a comparative process by which the psychologist considers the criminal history of the prisoner and assesses it with the person’s current mental status. Various measures, such as interviewing and personality assessment techniques like MMPI, Rorschach test, etc., are used.
6. Child Custody- Who Will Keep the Child
In the criminal justice system, children have special consideration. All judicial and legal proceedings should be in the child’s best interest.
In most cases, there are many ways in which a child can come into legal disputes.
For example, child custody in divorce cases, the child in conflict with the law, the child in need of care and protection, etc., are based on the psychologist’s report, and the court decides what to do with the custody of the child.
The reports are based on:
- The need for love and affection
- An emotional bond between parents
- Their ability to provide the physiological and psychological needs of the child, and
- The chance of getting nurtured in culturally and educationally sound ways.
In the case of juvenile delinquency, the courts often need psychologists to assess the juvenile’s personality to choose the correct judgment, whether it is probation or psychotherapy, to make him/her a law-abiding citizen without endangering society.
7. Mitigating Factors
Forensic psychologists help to ascertain if there are any chances to alleviate the amount of punishment given to the accused.
Legal principles of insanity state that a defendant may be judged, found guilty of a crime and punished only if they were sane at the time of the offense. The defendant must have demonstrated both ‘mens rea’ and ‘actus reus’ (guilty mind and voluntary commission of an illegal act).
Insanity can be a defense to a strict liability offense. The defense side has the burden of proving that the defendant is insane.
For example, a prominent case involving this type of evaluation was Ford v.Wainwright, in which it was decided that a forensic psychologist must be hired to determine whether an inmate is competent to receive the death penalty.
8. Stress Management
Stress management in the judicial system is one of the main job profiles of a forensic psychologist. He/she mainly offers help to offenders or judicial employees in handling their stress. Some common examples are:
- First-time encounter killing by a police officer
- Losing partners while on duty
- Near-death experience
- First-time offender (guide on how to deal with groups, bullies, and other discomforts)
In addition, a review of the literature published in the Lancet Journal highlighted the prevalence of personality disorders like depression, Schizophrenia, and substance abuse among prisoners. In such cases, Psychologists can help inmates deal with stress and adapt to prison life by managing stress and providing psychological aid.
9. Prediction of Violent Behavior
The court has to ensure that the convicted criminals are not going to commit any further crimes. And it was assessed and ensured with the help of forensic psychologists.
There are several variables that needed to be analyzed such as:
- Weapon availability
- Early onset of violent behavior
- History of violence
- Substance abuse
- Symptoms of psychosis or antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy)
- Lack of social support
The above-listed factors have been recognized as risk factors for violence and used to predict the future crime patterns of the convicted person.
More interestingly, as per reports, 41% of convicted prisoners were reconvicted for new crimes within two years of their release. Based on this, psychologists evaluate the motive of the criminal. They use unique features of the criminal to differentiate them from others.
Recently, I read a case where a person is convicted for 18 years but because of violent behavior, he is still behind the bars. Read the case study (the punishment column) of Shirley Duguay & Douglas Beamish [Purr-Fect Match] Forensic Files.
10. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Being victimized by a terror event, a person may develop an adverse health and mental condition that frequently disturbs their daily routines.
Flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event make them stressed and worried.
Additionally, American appellate judges have acknowledged PTSD. As a result, courts have accepted PTSD evidence as being supported by science.
Psychologists are crucial in PTSD cases because CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy) based treatments may not be as successful as standard care at reducing or preventing PTSD, anxiety, or depressive symptoms in trauma survivors.
This can result in aggressive and violent behavior, which can lead to mental illness, substance abuse, and underlying personality factors, making it difficult to prove that the link between aggressive, violent behavior and PTSD is direct.
If forensic psychologists are to fulfill their responsibilities as expert witnesses in court, they must be knowledgeable about PTSD, its connections to criminal behavior, and its impact on criminal accountability of the case.
11. Postpartum Disorder (PPD)
Different studies show the prevalence of postpartum depression among mothers. Postpartum Stress Disorder or Postpartum Psychosis is a severe mental disorder that affects many mothers after giving birth to their child.
PPD may occur during the first three months of delivery. The disorder is characterized by an extended period of loss of contact with reality that may include auditory or visual hallucinations, delusions, or rapid mood swings.
The auditory and visual hallucinations may focus on violence toward the self or the infant.
Studies show that women with postpartum psychosis are often victims of domestic violence or abusive childhoods and have histories of abandonment or substance abuse.
The prevalence of stress in prenatal and postpartum periods has not been adequately studied. There are many factors that could increase their risk for postpartum stress. However, in all, it negatively impacts a mother’s well-being which in turn hurts the cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral development of infants.
I found a similar case of Marie Noe [The Killer Mom] Serial Killer Case Study
12. Competency to Stand a Trial
People with certain mental conditions such as Schizophrenia, depression, etc., may affect the individual normal cognitive functioning. He/she may be unable to understand the charges against them in a legal proceeding.
For example, suppose the person lacks a reasonable and factual understanding of what he/she is charged for. In that case, it is enough for the jury to postpone the case until the person becomes normal to stand trial.
In this situation, the doctors and mental health practitioners are responsible for assessing the person’s mental capacity.
Every person’s right is to have a fair and impartial trial in a dispute or criminal case. Assessing the mental ability and competency thus acts as an instrument to ensure the fundamental principle of a fair trial.
In Sankaran vs. state, 1994, during the trial of uxoricide (killing own’s wife), the plea for mental insanity was denied because no medical certificate or witness in support of the accused, and the earlier conviction was upheld on murder charges.
Similarly, the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 4241, establishes sentencing and other provisions for dealing with offenders who have or have had a mental disease or defect.
13. Determination of Criminal Responsibility
Criminal responsibility sounds synonymous with competency to stand trial. But both are different.
Criminal responsibility refers to the mental status of the accused when committing the offense. A person is criminally responsible for committing a crime if they know the nature of the crime and its effects.
The Mc Naughton’s Principle better illustrates criminal responsibility.
Daniel Mc. Naughton was suffering from the Delusion of Persecution and tried to kill Robert Peel, the prime minister of the UK, in 1843. Unfortunately, but mistakenly, he killed his secretary, Edmund Drummond.
During the trial, it was understood that Mc. Naughton was suffering from mental insanity and could not differentiate whether the act he committed was right or wrong, and he was acquitted.
However, later political turmoil arose, and a new bench of judges was constituted, and they arrived with the famous Mc. Naughton rule which says:
A person is not guilty of the crime committed that the person, at the time of committing the act, was suffering under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know that what he was doing was wrong.Mc. Naughton rule
Read More: Illusion vs Delusion: What’s the Difference?
14. Psychological Testing
Psychological experts are expected to give opinions to settle legal matters. Judicial decisions are rendered based on opinions derived from such experts using some psychological tests. The tests should be objective and accurate.
MMPI-2, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Test, Rorschach Test, and TAT are some of the experts’ frequently used psychological assessment tests.
Psychological tests are traditionally executed to assess the client’s mental health, as forensic evaluation is done based on specific legal settings.
The primary purpose of the assessment is to help the jury to arrive at a decision.
Psychological assessments are very helpful for investigating agencies to determine the offender’s personality features based on the crime.
In the famous John Wayne Gacy, aka Killer Clown case, forensic psychologists found out through interviews with the accused that the killings were preplanned, and his insanity plea was rejected.
- Garg, R. (2021, May 4). All you need to know about competency to stand trial [iPleaders]
- J. (2021, May 19). Five Famous Cases Cracked by Forensic Psychologists. [Online Psychology Degrees]
- Obrochta, C. A., Chambers, C. D., & Bandoli, G. (2020). Psychological distress in pregnancy and postpartum. [Doi]
- PTSD as a criminal defense: a review of case law. (2012). [PubMed]
- Pham, C. K., Fang, et.al. (2019). The role of psychological support interventions in trauma patients on mental health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. [Doi]
- Friel, A., White, T. S., & Hull, A. M. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder and criminal responsibility. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology. [Doi]
- Role of Psychologist in Criminal Profiling [Link]
- Taylor, S. (2019). Forensic Psychology: The Basics. Routledge
FR Author Group at ForensicReader is a team of Forensic experts and scholars having B.Sc, M.Sc, or Doctorate( Ph.D.) degrees in Forensic Science. We published on topics on fingerprints, questioned documents, forensic medicine, toxicology, physical evidence, and related case studies. Know More.