Another guest post by Allison Gamble to tide you guys over. Sorry about the inactivity.
The science of forensics, specifically forensic psychology, is a tool of the legal system. A forensic psychologist works to assess, identify and clarify psychological issues, without prejudice, in order to satisfy the court’s legal understanding of those issues. Forensic psychologists are often called upon to give psychological insight into cases like that of Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner, whose behaviors preceding the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabriele Giffordsmirrored those of a schizophrenic. Thus, the primary function of forensic psychology is to tie or untie the knot that binds mental illness to crime.
Evaluating Mental Illness
A forensic investigation may begin with a judge’s request to determine whether an alleged criminal is competent enough to stand trial. A forensic psychologist is then empowered to independently assess an individual’s sanity, as it relates to criminal responsibility. Likewise, a court may simultaneously require a forensics expert to reconstruct the accused’s state of mind at the time of a crime.
In Loughner’s case, a forensics neuropsychologist (someone who specializes in nervous system and brain evidence) might examine the suspect for trauma that may have caused him to act out. In cases where the accused exhibited strange social behaviors or hallucinated, a serious mental illness that would cause reality detachment, such as schizophrenia, would be considered.
While a forensic psychologist draws information to determine a person’s present state and what it was at time the crime was committed, an investigator also evaluates a suspect’s past issues with mental illness, including biological or developmental factors. Physical and psychological tests may be conducted, which often involve IQ testing and MRI or PET scans.
Forensics in Court
Once the assessment of an defendant’s total health picture — medical tests, background and police checks, evidence of deception — has been made, a forensic expert is bound by the court to make the information applicable to the law and worthy of courtroom testimony.
Violent Behavior and Schizophrenia
Although many people believe mental illness is a precursor to violent crime, University of Virginia law school psychologist Dr. John Monahan revealed in an interview with Voice of America, that he thinks a schizophrenic is no more likely to commit a violent crime than anyone else, unless the suspect is a substance abuser or discontinues mental health treatment. Indeed, social scientist Jeffrey Swanson added in the same VOA interview that twisted thinking is not directly linked to violence.
Ultimately it is the duty of a forensic psychologist to effectively span both the medical and legal fields and to serve as a conduit for critical evidence. A forensics expert plays no favorites in a courtroom, presenting unbiased and legally-comprehensible factual evidence. Performing duties only at the behest of the court, a forensic psychologist examines and reports upon a defendant’s past, present and sometimes probable future physical and mental state. Acting as an agent of translation for two respected professions, a forensic psychologist is employed to ensure justice remains fair for those accused of and victimized by crime.