What to look for in a Forensic Expert

What to Look for in a Forensic Psych Expert

David Dixon Ph.D.

A good forensic psych expert will know it is good clinical practice to speak with the defense attorney prior to the examination of the defendant. This allows for an accurate determination as to why the fitness issue has been raised. It is important for the psychologist to know what evidence there is, and what sort of trial and dispositional alternatives are being considered by both the prosecution and defense attorneys.

The examiner needs to pursue a complete set of medical and mental health records. Complete police reports of the alleged crime and past criminal history records are helpful. This will confirm the reliability and veracity of the defendant during interview. It is also crucial if the defendant has cycled through the criminal justice system several times prior.

The forensic psychologist needs to maintain an accurate record of when, where, and how information about the defendant was made available. Date and record of all contacts with the defendant, attorney, and other mental health professionals is valuable at later stages, if legal tactics are designed to confuse or mislead an expert witness. Observational history from jail guards and medical staff can be invaluable.

The examiner should be aware of the aspects of the interview and subsequent reports that are covered by statute or accepted practice within the state jurisdiction. Some states require a Miranda-like warning that informs the defendant of the limitations of confidentiality which may apply.

Reports must be written giving tangible clinical facts, and empirical reasons upon which any conclusion opinion is based. A well written report clearly addresses the facts in a reasonable and understandable manner, a description of the defendant’s mental and physical disability, and how these directly impair his ability to understand the proceedings and assist counsel in the defense. The report can address the likelihood that the defendant will respond to a specific course of treatment. It is important to also include any procedures, which if employed would compensate for the defendant’s diagnosed disability.

In summary, a good evaluator has the ability to focus on a mental disorder, diagnose it, and clearly support it in a well written report which a lay jury can understand. The evaluator must communicate with the attorney from the initiation of the consulting role in the case. The psychologist must have full knowledge of the legal system and appropriate case law. Prior to the trial, the psychologist needs to convey any areas of perceived “weak areas” of the case or problems with supporting existing diagnosis.

Ideally, a thorough examination is conducted over time to appreciate vacillating moods and levels of cooperation by the defendant. A forensic psych team, which has both male and female examiners to interview the defendant, may generate significant advantage in terms of cooperation, motivation, and responsiveness. Evaluation over some time line may reflect changes in the defendant both in terms of new medications prescribed, and possible toxicity which abates over time.