How many of you love television programs that have to do with crime solving? Shows such as CSI, Dateline and others that entail looking inside the heads of criminals are quite interesting. They tend to hook their audiences by providing clues that audience members can easily fit together to solve the crimes from home. When I signed up for a Forensic Psychology class this term, I thought this was what I would be doing. In reality, crime solving is only a tiny aspect of being a forensic psychologist. The discipline is so much more than these highly publicized sensational aspects. The rest involves a fusion of psychology and technical law that can easily confuse even the most astute student.
A lot of people equate forensic psychology with forensic science or law enforcement. They tend to think that the forensic psychologist arrives at a crime scene, surveys the area and eventually identifies a number of psychological clues that can help catch the bad guy. These things that you see on TV easily lead to a number of incorrect conclusions about what Forensic Psychology is. In fact, psychologists are rarely called upon to act in this capacity at all.
Simply stated, Forensic Psychology refers to any application of psychology to the legal system. Most often it is clinical psychology, but not always. There are different ethical standards regarding confidentiality and other issues that apply in the forensics field, as opposed to therapeutic psychology work, and forensic psychologists take completely different approaches to their clients than therapeutic psychologists do. Some might even argue that the intersection between psychology and the law is more like a collision than a fusion.
The work that I am currently conducting is a case analysis of a Muslim immigrant who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He lived on the streets and was arrested and jailed for trespassing. While in jail, he was given anti-psychotic medication for his mental illness. However, upon his release back into the streets, he discontinued taking the medication. He began to suffer visual and audio hallucinations and to believe that Nazi youth were coming to assassinate him. One night, as he was asleep on a park bench, he was, indeed, attacked by a gang of hoodlums. They beat him, kicked him and left him lying on the ground, but he was not seriously injured. After they left, the man searched until he found a pipe which he stashed in the shadows for his own protection.
The next morning, the man saw two young teenaged boys approaching from the park’s pathway. They were on their way to a music lesson.
Thinking they were the youths who had attacked him the night before, and believing they had returned to kill him, he sneaked up behind them and began to wield the pipe wildly. He struck the elder boy in the head knocking him to the ground before he began to repeatedly beat the younger brother. The elder brother was able to escape and seek assistance. When the police arrived, the man had bludgeoned the younger brother to death and was continuing to beat his lifeless body as he lay on the ground. The man went completely limp when he was apprehended by the police and did not resist arrest.
The man was evaluated, deemed incompetent to be tried and committed to a mental health care facility where he underwent pharmaceutical therapy for the paranoid schizophrenia. After 6 months of treatment, he was reevaluated and deemed competent to stand trial. He was tried and convicted of capital murder. It is my job to determine whether or not he qualifies for and should get the death penalty.
This brings up countless ethical issues with me. I am an avid opponent of the death penalty for many reasons. First, it is unfair. Ethnic minorities are more often convicted and sentenced to death for the same crimes when non-minorities receive lesser sentences. It costs more to execute a prisoner than to give one life in prison. Death of the criminal does not bring back the victim. There are just too many reasons to say, in full, why I oppose it on legal and ethical grounds. However, my personal opinions do not count in this instance. Only my professional ones do.
I have to consider what the prisoner needs, in terms of his rights being observed. I have to consider what the state needs, in terms of keeping the streets safe, and I have to consider what the court needs, in terms of arriving at a just solution. It is a lot to think about, and there are so many laws and legal loopholes and psychological issues and ethical standards to consider that it really makes my head swim!
I do not believe I will pursue a career in Forensic Psychology…..but this is an interesting class, nonetheless.