Evaluation and Assessment:
Psychology in the Courtroom
Dr. David Dixon, Forensic Psychologist
Forensic psychology is a
clinical psychology specialty which intertwines the law with two types of professional services: (1)
psychological evaluation and assessment to assist the defense or prosecution of
criminal cases or civil commitment proceedings; and (2)
"rehabilitation" of criminals once in the prison system.
When a person is charged
with a misdemeanor or a felony, their mental
state or mental illness may be an issue to consider before conviction or
The attorney representing the accused person may request a
psychological evaluation. Sometimes a psych evaluation is court ordered.
The state (prosecution)
carries the burden of proving "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the
defendant "formed the requisite mens rea to commit the
crime." [A "reasonable doubt" is a doubt based on reason
and common sense after a careful and impartial consideration of all
the evidence in the case. It is a kind of doubt that would make
a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his/her
own affairs. "Mens rea" is Latin for "guilty mind." It is a is a
criminal law concept which focuses on the mental state of the accused.
Did the person know that the act or omission was illegal or prohibited?]
When the court appoints a
psychologist or psychiatrist as an expert witness, the psychologist or
psychiatrist examines the
defendant (patient). A determination is made as to whether there
is substantial evidence that the patient suffers a mental disorder.
Emotions such as fear, jealousy, anger or hatred are not considered a
The psychologist or
psychiatrist needs to consider
psychological influences at the scene of the alleged crime (for
example, provocative social situations, injury, physical illness,
medical neurological diseases, adverse environmental conditions, etc.).
Depending on the outcome of the examination, the psychologist or
testify in court how the impaired mental abilities "actually
caused a malformation of the mental element of the crime." An
expert opinion is rendered regarding whether the "mental element
probably failed to be formed."
The expert does not have
to be certain that the defendant's disorder caused him or her to be
unable to form the intent or "knowledge," but the expert
must have some belief in the
"probability or possibility" that it did. Experts need to
testify with "reasonable" medical and psychological certainty.
The old "insanity defense"
or "M'Naughten" test was: "At the time of the commission of the
offense, as a result of a mental disease or defect, the mind of the
actor was affected to such an extent that: (1.) he was unable to
perceive the nature and quality of the act with which he is charged;
or (2.) he was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong
with reference to the act charged."
WPIC 20.01 INSANITY
AT THE TIME OF OFFENSE--DEFINITION
(Judges' instructions to
In addition to the plea of not guilty, the defendant has
entered a pleas of insanity existing at the time of the
Insanity existing at the time of the commission of the
act charged is a defense.
For a defendant to be found not guilty by reason of
insanity you must find that, as a result of mental
disease or defect, the defendant's mind was affected to
such an extent that the defendant was unable to perceive
the nature and quality of the acts with which the
defendant is charged or was unable to tell right from
wrong with reference to the particular acts with which
the defendant is charged.
Diminished Capacity, Competency
and Mitigating Circumstances
The law defines three main areas of defense related to mental health:
(a.) diminished capacity, (b.) competency, or (c.) mitigating circumstances.
capacity evaluation focuses on whether or not a person was
able to "form the specific, or "requisite intent' (or "know") to
commit the alleged crime. The expert witness would comment as to
whether the individual, in his/her opinion, was organized, purposeful,
and goal oriented/directed. The major question is, was the behavior affected by a
mental disorder of mood or thought? At that time, was this underlying
disorder exacerbated by alcohol and/or drug
intoxication? An "irresistible
impulse" is one induced by a mental disease affecting the
volatile powers so that the person afflicted is unable to resist the
impulse to commit the act that he/she has been charged with.
Criminal Law -- Diminished
Capacity -- Instruction -- Necessity
The issue of a
criminal defendant's alleged diminished capacity is
considered by the trier of the fact only is there is
substantial evidence that the defendant has a mental
condition and the evidence reasonably connects the
alleged mental condition with the inability to
possess the required level of culpability to commit
the charged crime.
evaluation assesses whether a person has the mental facility
or ability to understand the legal proceedings against them. In addition,
the evaluation focuses on determining whether they are able to assist their
attorney in their own defense.
circumstances are sometimes considered regarding the defendant's
capacity to "appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct or to conform
his conduct to the requirements of the law." In this legal
exception, voluntary use of alcohol or drugs is excluded. The
plea of mitigating circumstances is used primarily in consideration at sentencing.
WPIC 18.10 VOLUNTARY INTOXICATION
(Judges' instructions to
No act committed by a person while in a state of
voluntary intoxication is less criminal by
reason of that condition. However, evidence of
intoxication may be considered in determining whether
the defendant [acted] [or] [failed to act] with (fill
in requisite state).
NOTE ON USE: Use this
instruction for voluntary intoxication cases only.
It does not apply to a case in which involuntary
intoxication is claimed.
The forensic assessment
looks at many psychiatric diseases and personality
disorders and diseases which may cause problems with intellectual
functioning and memory. These include general assessment of brain damage caused by head
injury, deteriorative brain diseases, and acute chronic alcohol and drug abuse
to specific requests for evaluation such as "determination of methamphetamine
addiction and violence, brain damage or dementia resulting from methamphetamine
At times, the forensic examination include a battery of psychological
tests called neuropsychological testing.
Expert Witness Testimony
The psychiatrist or
psychologist who is asked to prepare a forensic psych evaluation (to examine and evaluate a patient in
anticipation of prosecution or litigation) may be recognized by the
court to serve as an expert witness. An expert witness--by virtue
of education, profession, and experience--is considered to have
special knowledge of the subject beyond that of the average person,
sufficient that others may legally and officially rely his opinion.
The psychiatrist or
psychologist serving as an expert witness may give professional
opinions in court about matters that are relevant to his or her
expertise. By contrast, other (non-expert) witnesses usually can only
testify about the facts in the case and are not permitted to include
their opinions in court testimony.
Expert witnesses are not
paid for their testimony. However, like attorneys and other
professionals, they are paid for their time and expertise. Expert witness testimony
may also be used in a personal injury case when the plaintiff makes a case
that they suffered undue pain and suffering in a mental or emotional manner.
Expert witnesses must
present their credentials and training accurately. They are subject to cross
examination and attacks on their reputation, credibility and opinions.
Expert witnesses must be careful to avoid taking these attacks personally and
becoming angry. Loosing their temper may be exactly what
opposing counsel wants them to do. Court proceedings are usually an
adversarial process. The expert witness must remember that the
cross-examining prosecutor or attorney is just doing his/her job.
Dr. David Dixon is a
licensed clinical psychologist who has maintained a clinical practice in
Seattle, WA. and Bellevue, Washington
since 1983. He has ten years
of experience conducting forensic exams and testifying as an expert
witness in courtroom testimony, primarily in the greater Seattle, King
County, WA, Washington State area. He can be reached at (425)
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