By Dr. Ken Manges, Ph.D. | Forensic Psychologist
The most frequent response after introducing myself as a forensic psychologist is – WOW. Followed by the statement….that’s a really interesting career, followed immediately with the question… What is a Forensic Psychologist? Check out the video explanation below.
Forensic psychology is the practice of offering expert witness testimony in a legal setting within a recognized branch of psychology (clinical, developmental, organizational, learning, intelligence, etc.).
For me, with a career in forensic psychology and testimony expertise in emotional trauma, earning capacity, disability, pain, traumatic brain injury effect on ability to work, and catastrophic injury as well as jury consultation when not directly testifying, it has been a 40 year experience with periods of delight, mixed with continued learning and a healthy dose of frustration.
Until the 1990’s rarely did a psychologist set out to be a forensic psychologist and infrequently did a psychologist practice only within a legal setting.
As an aside, even now, unless you are employed by a forensic center as a service for the court system to address competency and criminal intent; if you want to practice as a forensic psychologist in most states you must be treating your own patients if you want to testify. Within the ethical boundaries established by the American Psychological Association if you are a treating provider you are directed not be offering forensic evidence about your client as that might adversely affect the client-doctor relationship.
The court has its rules about forensics being able to offer testimony as well. To testify in court in the absence of seeing your own clients or as a college professor who instructs for a livelihood and is attempting to educate a jury with their testimony is frowned upon. To testify without having a clinical practice or educational position implies your testimony is more self serving rather than practicing your profession. Some courts will not allow you to testify.
Expertise in the forensic psychological area you are offering opinions about is mandatory. If you are offering opinions about what is common and known to a juror then you are not needed. As a forensic psychologist you are expected to know the rules of testimony, keep track of your appearances at trial (Federal Rule 26), and be familiar with the basis of your opinion from a scientific standard as well as knowledgeable about the boundaries of your opinion (rules of hearsay, degree of probability and certainty) and be capable of translating a known psychological condition, diagnosis, scientific understanding into an understandable, credible and articulate statement under the duress of an adversarial direct and cross examination (not advisable for those uncomfortable with non-approval or weak of heart).
As an expert you must be qualified by the court (federal, state, common pleas, or court marital in the military) in order to testify about your opinions. And in order to have your opinions accepted they must be scientifically founded (Daubert standards apply).
Sometimes a voir dire of the expert is held before they are even allowed to testify so the opposing counsel has a chance to screen you about your intended testimony before exposure to the jury.
Forensic psychologists are not advocates for the person or matter they are testifying about. Indeed, if the testifying expert were an advocate for the person they are testifying about they would be ruled unable to offer an opinion.
Forensics are directed and ethically bound not to take sides. An attorney is expected to take the side of their client and a physician is expected to take side of their patient. Not so for a forensic psychologist, forensics are expected to be the Switzerland or neutral party in the legal arena.
Unlike a court appointed forensic psychologist in a criminal matter testifying about competency to stand trial or offering an opinion about the defendant not being guilty by reason of insanity, forensic psychologists are asked amongst other topics to testify about:
- emotional trauma in personal injury cases
- loss of consortium in wrongful death
- fitness for duty in the workplace
- jury selection in capital murder cases
- unreliability in eyewitness testimony
- hostile work environments in employment law
- parenting in custody matters
- brain injury in traumatic brain injury cases
- evaluation of purposeful, knowing, reckless or negligent behavior in criminal matters