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Forensic psychology is the connection between the tenure or study of psychology and the law. It is the professional application of psychological facts, models, and principles to civil and criminal justice systems (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). It includes inquiries, studies, assessments, and counsel to attorneys, advisory views, and testimony to aid in the resolution of conflicts related to life or property in cases before the courts. It also covers courtroom activities, such as presenting testimonies, custody battles, and assessment of the suitability of police and witnesses.
Roesch and Zapf (2012) identify wrongful imprisonment, violation of individual rights, and forced confessions as issues falling under the perview of forensic psychology. Forensic psychologists work in prisons, jails, rehabilitation centers, police units, law firms, schools, government bodies, and private practice. This paper examines the work of the forensic psychologists. In particular, their role in voir dire and in the investigations of the jury panel.
Jury Consultant and the Voir Dire Process
In practice, voir dire describes the process of interrogating eventual jurors by a judge or litigator in advance of a jury. The goal of this process is to enroll an impartial jury that is suitable for their client. The jurors who are most biased are removed from the pool of judges through a process of revealing and elimination.
Though jury consultants support trial lawyers at each stage of trial, they are mainly engrossed in engaging psychological theories and statistical analyses to pick favorable juries and forecast how a jury will receive and react to evidence in a given case (Allen, 2015). In situations where the sides agree, jury selection begins with a series of questions agreed upon by all parties. Jury consultation techniques include “the traditional ranking scale, attitudinal surveys, in-court assessments of non-verbal juror communications, group dynamic analyses, mock trials, shadow juries, and focus groups” (Allen, 2015, p. 530).
The process of scientific jury selection weeds out biased and dishonest jurors and discloses juror and attorney misconduct that could jeopardize the sanctity of jury deliberation. What constitutes the juror’s risk factors depends on who the forensic psychologist is representing and the nature of the criminal allegations at hand. In criminal trials, prosecutors and defense attorneys are fervent opponents who seek to present their case in the most favorable way to their clients. Thus, the prosecutors and the defense are interested in jurors who will not only be most receptive to their version of truths that are likely to be swayed by certain facts and witnesses, but also most probable to rule in their favor.
Defendants and prosecutors investigate prospective jurors’ habits, secrets, preferences, affiliations, reputation, and standing in the society. Conventionally, this was done to reveal the potential juror’s political and religious affiliations, marital status, community reputation, drinking habits, employment status, and criminal histories (Canter & Youngs, 2012). These elements under investigation help attorney in tweaking arguments in a way that influences specific jurors. The elements also help in fine-tuning a legal argument for closing. From a forensic perspective, the juror’s decision-making processes can be evaluated based on these elements. As such, attorneys can make deductions and predict the outcome of a case.
Witnesses are coached on how to respond to questions and give convincing testmonies before the jury. Most trials rely on the strength of witness testimony, and on the poise, credibility, and clearness of the witness in the entire process. The key areas that psychologists focus on when coaching a witness is articulation and active listening. That way, they may tilt the case in favor of the defense or the prosecutor, depending on the evidence in question.
Role of the Consultant for the Prosecutor
Jurors selected by a forensic psychologist on behalf of the prosecutor will have some mental propensity to agree with the case, sympathize with law enforcement or a particular type of victim, or sympathize with another form of bias that supports the case. The psychological elements favored include a trust in authority figures, an overall perception that the criminal justice system is fair and reasonable, and a predisposition to agree with majority opinions (Neal, 2016).
Role of the Consultant for the Defense
Legal psychologists study the phenomenon of false confession to ensure that defendants do not settle for crimes they have not committed. The other role is assessing the competency of the defendants and of the elderly. An intriguing area for the legal psychologist is the assessment of insanity cases. In the U.S., for instance, a person cannot be convicted for a crime committed without a “guilty mind” at the time of the incident (Acklin & Fuger, 2016). The forensic psychologist works retrospectively on the evidences available to ascertain the offender’s mental status at the time of the crime. The psychologist works to reduce inappropriate convictions of innocent defendants. However, if he/she is hired by the defendant, he/she may be biased towards the defendant and work towards the reduced conviction of the client irrespective of whether he is guilty or innocent. Jurors chosen by a forensic consultant on behalf of the defense will be individuals who distrust authority figures, question majority opinion, and demonstrate strong feelings of sympathy or empathy.
The analytical techniques that the consultant uses when helping the defense set against supporting the prosecution differ. When representing the prosecutor, the psychologist might employ various investigative techniques. The first one is criminal profiling to ascertain personality traits, behaviors, inclinations, physical location, and descriptors of an offender (defense) based on crime scene characteristics. The aim of the technique is to thin down the field of possible suspects. The second technique is psychological autopsy to remodel the personality profile and cognitive features of the deceased. It is aimed at clarifying deaths that are ambiguous or uncertain. The third one is the use of geographic profiling and mapping to analyze physical locations linked to spatial movements of an offender and spatial patterns of crimes committed by many offenders. The fourth technique is the use of a lie detector (a polygraph) to detect the psychophysiological reactions that accompany emotional responses to guilt, shame, and anxiety via heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and skin conductance (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). Behavioral assessment is done through a lie detector test to determine the accuracy and reliability of the testimonies.
Besides legal and forensic psychology expertise, a juror should be knowledgeable in witness competency evaluation, interviewing, and evidence collection and interpretation (Allen, 2015). My preferred area is competency evaluations of the accused to determine his or her suitability to undergo the due process of the law. In my view, trying a person who is not psychologically fit to listen and respond to the allegations amounts to a miscarriage of justice. Such statements may be unreliable leading to self-incrimination. A forensic assessment of the accused person in custody determines the individual’s competence to stand trial. Competency relates to his or her ability to comprehend the proceedings and articulate his/her defense for the juror to make an appropriate determination.
I strongly believe in a fair trial that gives the accused the right of response. An incompetent defendant cannot affirm or discredit the evidence or eye witness testimonies. Therefore, recommendations based on a forensic assessment can allow the court to decide to proceed with the case or allow the accused person to undergo psychiatric treatment for a period before commencing the case. As a forensic psychologist, I would work closely with the family members to identify the potential stressors contributing to the accused person’s psychological distress. Such background information can be useful in making an appropriate diagnosis and recommending treatment. The aim of recommending treatment is to restore the individual to a competent state for fair court proceedings to begin. Death penalty cases also require prior assessment of the inmate (Allen, 2015). I also support sanity evaluations of death penalty, repeat offenders, and defendants to ensure that the defendant is not psychologically impaired during court proceedings for a fair trial.
The contributions of the forensic psychologist to the judicial process are immense. His participation in voir dire process, i.e., when hired by the court, ensures fair trial and judgments that have high probabilities of being trusted by both the prosecution and the defense. It is therefore a tenure that provides an opportunity to contribute to the society’s well being, it is a well-paying job, and employment opportunities are immense since it is a new discipline.
Acklin, M. W., & Fuger, K. (2016). Assessing field reliability of forensic decision making in criminal court. Journal of Forensic Psychology 16(2), 74-93.
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Allen, K. (2015). The jury: Modern day investigation and consultation. The Review of Litigation, 34(3), 529–561.
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2012). Current perspectives in forensic psychology and criminal behavior. Madison, CA: Sage Publisher, Inc.
Canter, D., & Youngs, D. (2012). Narratives of criminal action and forensic psychology. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 17(1), 262-275.
Neal, T. M. S. (2016). Are forensic experts already biased before adversarial legal parties hire them? PloS ONE, 11(1), 1–13.
Roesch, R., & Zapf, P. A. (2012). Forensic assessments in criminal and civil law: A handbook for lawyers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.