Thursday, March 27, 2008

Two major competency cases in court

Self-representation and execution at issue
  • Should a higher level of competency be required for being one's own lawyer than for standing trial with a real lawyer?
  • How competent must someone be in order for the state to kill him?
Those two issues were in court yesterday in separate but somewhat related cases, one before the U.S. Supreme Court and the other in a widely awaited Texas appellate court ruling.

Competency to represent oneself

Although it was eclipsed by the OJ trial happening at the same time in Los Angeles, some readers may recall the farcical spectacle of Colin Ferguson's trial. Ferguson was the delusional man who opened fire on the Long Island Railroad, killing six people and wounding 19 more. After firing his prominent attorneys, he represented himself and presented a bizarre, delusionally based defense. He was found guilty, naturally, and received six consecutive life terms.

The Ferguson spectacle was enabled by the high court's 1993 opinion in Godinez v. Moran. Tom Moran was a severely depressed, suicidal defendant who waived the right to an attorney in a double murder case, pled guilty without presenting any evidence, and was promptly sentenced to die. The Supreme Court held that the same low standard of competency exists for all criminal proceedings.

Proponents of allowing mentally ill defendants to represent themselves despite questionable understanding and judgment cite the Sixth Amendment's right to self-representation. Legal scholar Michael Perlin, who just published an excellent book on competency, calls this argument a "pretextual" rationalization.

The competing positions were at the forefront of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday in the case of Indiana v. Edwards. The case involves Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic man whom a trial judge ruled was competent to stand trial for a robbery-shooting but incompetent to represent himself.

The state of Indiana argued before the high court yesterday that allowing states to set their own, higher standards for self-representation ensures both fairness for accused individuals and the dignity of the courts.

Edwards' attorney countered that "the expressed premise of the Sixth Amendment and of our adversarial system generally is that the defense belongs to the accused and not to the state."

The high court justices were divided along predictable lines. Justice Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy seemed concerned about people ending up in prison because they were too disturbed to represent their best interests at trial. But Justice Antonin Scalia said that's just too bad for them – if a defendant makes a poor choice, it is "his own fault."

A ruling is expected within the next few months.

Competency to be executed

The legal standard is much lower for competency to be executed. If you've got a basic understanding that you committed a crime and the state is going to kill you for it, you're good to go (to the Pearly Gates, that is).

That's the "Ford standard" set in the 1986 case of Ford vs. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court ruled that executing a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Last year, the highly polarized Supreme Court declined to clarify the somewhat vague Ford standard, issuing a 5-4 opinion on narrow procedural grounds in the closely watched Panetti v. Quarterman case (see my previous blog posts here and here; the opinion is here).

Yesterday, a Texas court responded by affirming convicted killer Scott Panetti's competence to die. Indeed, said the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, "if any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his crimes, this record establishes it is Scott Panetti."

Panetti, who killed his estranged wife's parents, was found competent to stand trial after two jury trials on that issue. Unlike Ahmad Ewards, he was allowed to represent himself at his 1995 murder trial despite being floridly psychotic and delusional - and he's been regretting it ever since. During his trial, he rambled insanely and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and other dead people.

"The record of Panetti's competency hearings and trial is not pretty," the appellate court conceded. "For better or worse, however, the issues of Panetti's competence to stand trial and his insanity defense have been tried, appealed, reviewed in state and federal habeas proceedings, and conclusively put to rest. Panetti is not permitted to relitigate these arguments in his proceedings under Ford."

The court’s 62-page opinion is interesting reading. It reviews the facts of the case, the exhaustive history of appeals, and the expert witness testimony of numerous well-regarded forensic experts called by both sides. The case even involved expert testimony by a forensic psychiatrist and neurologist, Dr. Priscilla Ray, on the science behind competency opinions, that is, "the extent to which psychiatric science can assist the Court in assessing competence to be executed, particularly with regard to the concept of rational understanding."

In discussing Panetti's "rational understanding" of his situation, the court also contemplated evidence suggesting that Panetti was exaggerating his schizophrenic disorder to avoid the needle. Yesterday's opinion cited the results of widely used tests of malingering, including the Structured Inventory of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) and Green's Word Memory Test (WMT).

At the end of the day, after reviewing all of the evidence, the Court held:

"Panetti is seriously mentally ill…. While the extent to which Panetti has been manipulating or exaggerating his symptoms is unclear, it is not seriously disputable that Panetti suffers from paranoid delusions of some type… However, it is equally apparent … that [his] delusions do not prevent him from having both a factual and rational understanding that he committed [the] murders, was tried and convicted, and is sentenced to die for them…. Panetti was mentally ill when he committed his crime and continues to be mentally ill today. However, he has both a factual and rational understanding of his crime, his impending death, and the causal retributive connection between the two."
The ruling can be found HERE. National Public Radio has coverage and commentary here. A 28-minute video, "Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti," is available here. An essay by Yale scholar Steven Erickson entitled "Minding Moral Responsibility," which discusses the Panetti case, is available here. The Indianapolis Star has more coverage of Indiana v. Edwards.

Hat tip: Steven Erickson

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Prison pipeline for transgender youth

Poor and minority especially at risk

At a prison reception center, dozens of orange-clad men sit in a long row, waiting for an initial mental health screening. Imagine my surprise, one morning, to see an orange-clad woman sitting in one of the chairs.

I did a double-take the first time I saw this while working at the prison. After a while, though, I got used to it. Quite a few transgender prisoners live in mainline men's prisons.

It was always interesting to talk to these women in men's bodies. I remember being especially impressed by the poise and self-assurance of one in particular. I saw Kalani Key during her 14th stint in prison; she now works as an advocate for transgender prisoners and has written an essay entitled "How I Survived Men's Prison as a Woman."

Key's survival story is remarkable in light of the pervasive victimization of transgender prisoners. Since the landmark case of Farmer v. Brennan in 1994, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison rape is unconstitutional, transgender prisoners have made some modest progress. But rates of sexual violence against them remain astonishingly high. A recent study by UC Irvine criminologist Valerie Jenness found that 59% of transgender prisoners in California reported sexual victimization, compared to 4% of the general prison population.

Last fall, Dr. Jenness testified as an expert in the civil trial of transgender prisoner Alexis Giraldo, who sued Folsom Prison officials over an alleged prison rape. Giraldo lost.

Why such high rates of incarceration and abuse?

As I found out while researching the motivations of hate crime offenders back in the mid-1900s, probably no one is more despised and vilified than the man or woman who violates traditional norms for male and female behavior. Rejection and abuse by family, schools, peers and the community at large lead to high rates of depression, substance abuse, school dropout, and running away. These problems may lead to homelessness and prostitution which, in turn, lead to arrest.

As explored in an article published this month, transgender youth who get caught up in the juvenile justice system face extreme hostility and abuse at the hands of judges, counselors, correctional staff, and even their own court-appointed attorneys. They are more likely than other youths to be given harsh punishment in maximum-security institutions. This, of course, is part of the channeling toward adult prison.

The timely article, by attorney Jody Marksamer, chronicles the case of 15-year-old Destiny, who was sent to a maximum-security facility where she was sexually assaulted, harassed, and mistreated by both youths and staff. Subjected to forced gender conformity in the guise of "treatment," she was punished for dancing like a girl and was told by staff not to report her ongoing experiences of sexual victimization.

Like Destiny, many of the transgender prisoners I saw were poor and nonwhite. Indeed, a large proportion of the young transgender women and men who are murdered every year are minority. This fact is conveniently neglected by the mainstream transgender rights movement, according to a provocative article in the same special issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy highlighting the murder of 16-year-old Fred "FC" Martinez, a Navajo Indian.

Shutting down the prison pipeline for poor and minority transgender youth is a tall order. The schools need to be safe so transgender youth are not forced to drop out. Professionals in the criminal justice system, and most especially in the juvenile justice system, need education and training. Individualized diversion programs need to be created as alternatives to detention for juvenile status offenders.

Last but not least, the conditions of confinement need to be improved. Labeling transgender youths as sexual deviants and then housing them with aggressive sex offenders is a recipe for further victimization and trauma.

The articles referenced above are in the current issue of Sexuality Research & Social Policy, a special issue dedicated to transgender issues. Jody Marksamer's article is entitled "And by the Way, Do You Know He Thinks He's a Girl? The Failures of Law, Policy, and Legal Representation for Transgender Youth in Juvenile Delinquency Courts." The other article I mention is "Retelling racialized violence, remaking white innocence: The politics of interlocking oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance" by Sarah Lamble. A 2005 ACLU report on violence against transgender prisoners, "Still in Danger," is also available online.

Photo credit: Andrew Ciscel (Creative Commons license)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Presidential hopefuls' criminal justice stances

Despite growing public awareness of the drastic costs of current policies, criminal justice issues have received little attention in the U.S. presidential debates. To rectify this, the nonpartisan Sentencing Project has prepared a handy 11-page pdf guide that provides the positions of frontrunners McCain, Obama and Clinton on nine key criminal justice issues, including sentencing policy, prisoner reentry, the death penalty, and felony disenfranchisement. The guide is available here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Not this time,* high court rules

In his speech on race, Barack Obama referenced the OJ Simpson case as an example of race being used as "spectacle."

A good example of the rhetorical power of OJ references came in a Louisiana courtroom, when a prosecutor told an all-white jury that since OJ "got away with it," the jury should impose death on an African American murder defendant. In a parish where a local Ku Klux Klan wizard was a popular figure, the jury obliged.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that sentence this week. But the high court's opinion in Snyder v. Louisiana was not based on the OJ reference. Indeed, the court's opinion does not even mention the prosecutor’s inflammatory statement during closing arguments. Rather, the case was overturned because the prosecutor selectively removed all African Americans from the jury.

Under the 1986 Batson rule and subsequent case law, prosecutors must not strike jurors for the purpose of race discrimination. If challenged, they must be able to offer a race-neutral reason for having removed jurors from a certain race.

This leads to some very strained excuses, including the one given by the prosecutor in the Snyder case. He said he exercised a peremptory challenge against black college student Jeffrey Brooks because Brooks looked nervous and was worried about missing classes. The court found that excuse "implausible," in light of more severe hardship claims by white jurors who were not dismissed.

"People can offer compelling explanations for their behavior even when unaware of the factors - such as race - that are actually influential," wrote researchers Samuel Sommers and Michael Norton in a recent article on this phenomenon. "Even if attorneys consciously and strategically consider race during jury selection, they would be unlikely to admit it."

In the case of Snyder, who was convicted of stabbing to death his estranged wife's date, the prosecutor had managed to get rid of all nine blacks in the jury pool of 85.

Not surprisingly, Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented from the majority, saying the trial court's opinion that race was not a factor should not be second-guessed.

The ScotusBlog, Sentencing Law & Policy, and Deliberations blogged about the case and its implications. The case itself can be found here. Related posts of mine are here and here. Photo credit: Tilaneseven

*"Not this time" is a quote from Barack Obama's recent speech, in which he stated: "We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news.... Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.... This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Neuropsychology in the courtroom

The books are flying off the presses so fast I can't keep up! Here's a new one by Robert Heilbronner that's being recommended in neuropsychology circles.

This is the publisher's blurb on Neuropsychology in the courtroom: Expert analysis of reports and testimony:

This volume brings together leading neuropsychologists to shed light on the nuts and bolts of forensic practice. An array of adult and child cases are presented, involving such conditions as traumatic brain injury, multiple chemical sensitivity, cerebral anoxia, and electrical injury. Contributors show how they go about reviewing reports and depositions in a particular case, providing fine-grained analysis of the opinions and conclusions of the examiner. Issues addressed in detail include the selection of tests, appropriate use of normative samples, and errors in scoring and interpretation. Unique in providing multiple perspectives on each case, the book identifies common clinical and professional pitfalls and how to avoid them.

You can peruse the chapters and get more information here.

I won't post more today, because I'd rather all of you spend your spare surfing time checking out Obama's brilliant and moving speech on race (the text version is online here; a complete video is here).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Miranda waiver must be clear, court rules

"I'm good for tonight" doesn't cut it

A caricatured staple on TV police procedurals, the Miranda warning has been gradually stripped of its original intentions of protecting naïve suspects and turned into yet another tool of law enforcement.

A ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week went against that dominant trend. The government has a "heavy burden" to show that a suspect made a clear and unambiguous waiver of his Miranda rights prior to police questioning, the court held in United States v. Jose Rodriguez.

"I'm good for tonight" is too ambiguous of a statement to count as a waiver.

The importance of this case is discussed in detail by Steven Kalar at the 9th Circuit Blog. For more in-depth discussions of Miranda in contemporary police practice, see Richard Leo's Police Interrogation and American Justice and Charles Weisselberg's Mourning Miranda.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law

From the internationally known forensic psychologist/attorney who co-authored the excellent case-study book "Minds on Trial" comes a scintillating new case-study book, described by one reviewer as "a mesmerizing compilation of the most notorious cases in which mental illness has been claimed to trump personal responsibility."

Here's the front flap of Charles Patrick Ewing's Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law:

The insanity defense is one of the oldest fixtures of the Anglo-American legal tradition. Though it is available to people charged with virtually any crime, and is often employed without controversy, homicide defendants who raise the insanity defense are often viewed by the public and even the legal system as trying to get away with murder. Often it seems that the legal result of an insanity defense is unpredictable, and is determined not by the defendant’s mental state, but by their lawyer’s and psychologist’s influence.

From the thousands of murder cases in which defendants have claimed insanity, Dr. Ewing has chosen ten of the most influential and widely varied. Some were successful in their insanity plea, while others were rejected. Some of the defendants remain household names years after the fact, like Jack Ruby, while others were never nationally publicized. Regardless of the circumstances, each case considered here was extremely controversial, hotly contested, and relied heavily on lengthy testimony by expert psychologists and psychiatrists. Several of them played a major role in shaping the criminal justice system as we know it today.

In this book, Ewing skillfully conveys the psychological and legal drama of each case, while providing important and fresh professional insights. For the legal or psychological professional, as well as the interested reader, Insanity will take you into the minds of some of the most incomprehensible murderers of our age.

The cases:

  • Jacob Rubenstein (aka Jack Ruby) of JFK fame
  • David “Son of Sam”Berkowitz
  • Andrea Yates, the Texas mom who drowned her five kids in the bathtub
  • Scott Panetti, the Texan whose competency-to-be-executed case I've blogged about (here and here)
  • John Wayne Gacy, serial killer of 30 or more boys and young men
  • Andrew Goldstein, who shoved a stranger in front of a New York City subway
  • Robert Torsney, a New York City police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager
  • Eric Michael Clark, a teenager who shot and killed a police officer during a traffic stop
  • Arthur Shawcross, who raped and strangled at least 11 women in upstate New York
  • Eric Smith, a 13-year-old who fatally beat a 4-year-old boy
In the mood for a little light bedtime reading?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Showdown looming over controversial theory

Parental Alienation Syndrome is by far the most controversial theory in high-conflict child custody litigation. And the battle lines are drawn primarily by gender: PAS is apt to be the first line of defense when a husband is accused in a custody battle of sexually abusing his children. That is, provided he has the money to hire a high-powered attorney.

Under the theory, one parent - almost always the mother - is accused of turning the children against the other, and brainwashing them to believe they have been abused even when they have not been.

The purported syndrome stubbornly refuses to die despite the facts that:

  • it has not been empirically verified
  • it has been excluded from many courtrooms as not meeting minimal standards of evidence admissibility
  • its creator and chief proponent is long gone (having allegedly stabbed himself to death with a butcher knife)
But historic legislation in California is aimed at squelching PAS by setting guidelines for child custody evaluations that could reduce or eliminate its introduction in court.

The original version of the legislation, AB 612, specifically referenced Parental Alienation Syndrome. The new version, AB 2587, is watered down, speaking only to the need for evaluators to conform to "generally accepted" standards without specifically mentioning PAS.

Although the American Psychological Association has raised concern about use of the theory in court, child custody evaluators remain divided in their beliefs about its validity. But psychologists are not nearly as rancorous in their division as are activists in the so-called "father’s rights" or women's rights movements. A quick web search reveals dozens of sites dedicated to proselytizing pro or con.

In a balanced report this week, the San Bernardino Sun quotes Dr. Philip Stahl, a California evaluator and member of the state's Association of Family & Conciliation Courts, as saying that judges also bring their own preconceptions into the fray.

"Courts are ruling in favor of people unfairly accused of alienation, and they are ruling against people who have been alienated," Stahl is quoted as saying. "Problems described by advocates on both sides on the issue are happening."

Central to the problem is the lack of a magic truth detector that can distinguish true from false allegations of child abuse. After a while, even the children themselves may become confused about what really did, or did not, happen.

The syndrome was invented by Dr. Richard Gardner, who self-published his work and made a career out of testifying for fathers in child custody cases.

Despite the fact that judges are supposed to play a gatekeeper function and not allow in evidence without sufficient scientific support, in practice courts vary tremendously in how rigorously they scrutinize scientific evidence. According to one attorney, courts that have held special hearings on whether PAS meets the Frye evidentiary standard of being generally accepted in the scientific community have found that it does not. (For more on the issue of the legal admissibility of the PAS, see this scholarly article and this website.)

The mental health and medical fields are littered with dozens if not hundreds of "syndromes" with widely varying levels of empirical support, some invoked to make something sound more medical or scientific than it is. Many of these - including False Memory Syndrome, Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, Adopted Child Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Premenstrual Syndrome, Battered Women's Syndrome, and even Post-Abduction Syndrome - are typically frowned on within the scientific community.

Particularly problematic in child custody litigation is the unequal playing field in court, with the husband often possessing greater financial resources that allow him to hire better attorneys and more convincing experts than his wife. Given the strong resistance of the father's rights movement, it's highly unlikely that this watered-down proposal will even become law, much less that it will significantly change the tenor of high-conflict child custody litigation.

The San Bernardino Sun article is here. More information, pro and con, can be found here, here, here, and here - and a web search will garner much more where that came from.

Photo credit: worldwidewebdomination (Creative Commons license)

Action Alert: Help save Minority Fellowship Program

Despite a glut of mental health practitioners in some communities, ethnic minority communities in the United States continue to face extreme shortages. People in poor and minority communities have a harder time finding help and, when they do get treatment, it is typically of poorer quality, according to studies.

This problem will drastically increase if President Bush gets his way: The proposed budget for 2009 will eliminate the long-running Minority Fellowship Program, thereby reducing training opportunities for minority professionals who are more willing to work in critically underserved communities.

Clicking either here or on the "Contact Congress Now" box below will take you to an American Psychological Association-sponsored website where you can email your Congress member and urge him or her to save this 33-year-old fellowship program. It takes less than three minutes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blog featured at Court-o-rama

Court-o-rama, which bills itself as "the least dangerous blog," has honored "In the News" as the first in its new "Blog of the Week" series. Court-o-rama, in turn, is worth checking out, for its offbeat coverage of the weird and wacky world of law.

My apologies for the paucity of posts so far this week, loyal readers; just too much work and not enough time.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Judge may block hater from misusing courts

First Amendment and fair use doctrine at issue

How's this for audacity: Spew hateful venom against a minority group and then, when the group protests by calling for an advertising boycott, sue for copyright infringement because the group quoted your words.

As someone who did research into hate crimes a few years back, I've been following trends in hate-related violence. Ever since 9/11, we've seen increasing targeting of Arab Americans, Muslims, and people who are mistaken for Arabs or Muslims (such as Sikhs, Iranians and even Mexicans). That's partly because when a minority group is openly maligned, it sends a message to rageful and disempowered young men that it's OK to act out against that group.

A perfect exemplar of incendiary hate-mongering is extremist nut Michael Savage, whose syndicated radio show "Savage Nation" has about 8 million listeners on 400 stations. His anti-Muslim vitriol is blood-chilling (don’t take my word for it – listen here or here).

Rather than silently accepting Savage's abuse, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on advertisers to stand up for human rights by withdrawing support from Savage. Several large corporations, including Wal-Mart, AT&T, and Sears, reportedly heeded the call, costing Savage $1 million or more by his estimate.

Savage responded by suing CAIR for copyright infringement. Even more preposterously, he accused the group of racketeering, claiming it poses as a civil rights organization but is actually a "mouthpiece of international terror" that helped to fund the 9/11 attacks.

This is not the first time the rabid Savage has tried to use the courts to stifle free speech. With the civil court system increasingly off limits to all but the wealthy, he and his Talk Radio Network have the money to hire lawyers and go after critics left and right; in 2003 they went after Take Back the Media, SavageStupidity.com and MichaelSavageSucks.com on similar grounds. (A pdf of that lawsuit is posted here.)

I can hardly imagine a better example than CAIR's of "fair use," a legal doctrine stemming from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that allows portions of copyrighted material to be reprinted for purposes of (among other things) scholarly debate, criticism, or parody.

To her credit, a federal judge said on Friday that she agrees with much of the anti-defamation group's legal defense under the First Amendment and that she will likely dismiss the lawsuit. Unfortunately the judge said she may allow Savage to modify the lawsuit and file it again.

I sure hope the Honorable Susan Illuston follows through and bars this vicious hate-monger from misusing the civil process to stop legitimate - indeed crucial - criticism.

Today's San Francisco Chronicle has coverage. See more commentary at "Crooks and Liars."

Friday, March 7, 2008

Can expert witnesses change their minds?

Of course. But there's a right way and there's a wrong way.

That was at the heart of this week's appellate decision by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Pace v. Swerdlow.

The case involved an expert witness anaesthesiologist, Barry N. Swerdlow, who changed his mind on the eve of a trial, contributing to the dismissal of the Paces' wrongful death claim.

The case was brought by Thomas and Karol Pace of Utah, whose daughter died after undergoing breast augmentation surgery. According to the 10th Circuit opinion, anaesthesiologist Barry Swerdlow of California approached the Paces' attorney and offered his services as an expert witness. After being retained, Swerdlow wrote a report stating that in his expert opinion the surgical center and its anaesthesiologist, Dr. Stephen Shuput, were negligent in releasing the Paces' daughter from the hospital despite her complaints of chest pains and trouble breathing.

During subsequent deposition testimony, however, Swerdlow admitted that he had not read the attending anaesthesiologist's deposition before forming an opinion. He explained on the record that he was "a relative novice at this whole thing" and had no experience testifying in court as an expert witness. In questioning Swerdlow, the defense attorney implied that the self-appointed expert might be behaving unethically, in violation of his professional licensure.

It was after that deposition that Swerdlow changed his mind. After reading Shuput's deposition, he wrote an "addendum" stating that there had been no breach of the appropriate standard of care. Without giving any advance warning to the Paces or the attorney who had retained him, he sent the addendum to the opposing attorneys. Not surprisingly, the trial court dismissed the Paces' wrongful death claim, leading to their federal appeal.

The 10th Circuit held that a lower court was wrong to dismiss the Paces' lawsuit against Swerdlow for professional malpractice, fraud, and breach of contract. They remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, including a decision on whether the expert is protected by any doctrine of expert witness immunity. Such statutes, the court noted, vary from state to state.

In an interesting partial dissent, Circuit Judge Gorsuch discussed the dangers of discouraging expert witnesses from changing their minds - so long as the change of opinion is based on honest and professional reasoning rather than pressure from the other side:

"Allowing this claim to march along sends the message to would-be expert witnesses: Be wary - very wary - of changing your mind, even when doing so might be consistent with, or compelled by, the standards of your profession…. In our legal system, demanding that experts 'deliver' a specified opinion, as opposed to their honest judgment, is supposed to be ethically out-of-bounds - not the basis for a cause of action.

"Parties already exert substantial influence over expert witnesses, often paying them handsomely for their time, and expert witnesses are, unfortunately and all too frequently, already regarded in some quarters as little more than hired guns. When expert witnesses can be forced to defend themselves in federal court … simply for changing their opinions - with no factual allegation to suggest anything other than an honest change in view based on a review of new information - we add fuel to this fire. We make candor an expensive option and risk incenting experts to dissemble rather than change their views in the face of compelling new information. The loser in all this is, of course, the truth-finding function and cause of justice our legal system is designed to serve."
The moral for forensic psychologists: Be sure you have appropriate education, training, and experience before hanging out your shingle as an "expert."

The case is here. For more on the legal doctrine of expert witness immunity, see "Suing your own expert witness: Competing policies, uncertain law," by Charles Patrick Ewing, JD, Ph.D., Monitor on Psychology, January 2001, Vol. 32 No. 1.

Photo credit: Estherase (Creative Commons license). Hat tip to Steven Erickson, JD, Ph.D., for alerting me to this case.

POSTSCRIPT: Additional coverage of this case, in the online edition of the
American Medical News dated April 14, 2008, is available here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Incarcerex: One nation, behind bars

With none of the front-running presidential candidates challenging the United States' long-running incarceration mania, INCARCEREX (click on either that capitalized title or on the picture to the right) is an incredibly timely video.

Also timely is today's pull-no-punches editorial in the Detroit Free Press, "One Nation, Behind Bars," which goes like this right here:

The U.S. prison population, the world's largest, has grown nearly eightfold over the past 35 years and now costs taxpayers at least $60 billion a year. An eye-popping report released last week by the Pew Center on the States found that, for the first time, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison. And that figure doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of people who are on probation and parole.

What is the goal here? Is there a smarter way to get there? What are we as a society getting in return for all this money? What is this massive and growing penal system accomplishing?

Before the nation hits two in 100 behind bars, which seems inevitable, it's time for a national debate on corrections and criminal justice policies that will lead to a more rational, humane and cost-effective system. The nation has gotten far too little for its enormous investment in locking people up. Violent crime rates are higher than they were more than three decades ago, when tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory sentencing laws, created a prison-building boom.

States can no longer afford to divert so many resources from education, health care and other pressing needs. Michigan, for example, with one of the nation's highest incarceration rates, spends $2 billion a year on corrections, or 20% of its general fund. It is one of four states spending more on corrections than higher education. In today's economy, spending more on prisons than college is a recipe for failure.

Nor can the nation ignore the human costs of mass incarceration. Nearly half of the 2.3 million adults locked up are African Americans, who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population. A stunning one in nine black males between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars.

The large numbers of people incarcerated may well increase crime rates. Prison culture has become a norm in some urban neighborhoods, with more than 600,000 people a year returning home from prison and jails. They come back poorly educated, lacking job skills, and socially and legally disabled by felony records. One in 14 African-American children has a parent who is incarcerated, greatly increasing the chances that they, too, will grow up to go to prison.

The good news is that budget pressures are forcing states, including Michigan, to take steps to control their prison populations. On average, Michigan incarcerates at a 40% higher rate than surrounding Great Lakes states. But Michigan was also one of 14 states where prison population dropped over the past year. The state's prisoner re-entry program has reduced recidivism; in some cases, parole rates have gone up.

Michigan is also considering other initiatives, including sentencing reforms that divert more low-level offenders into community programs and releasing more severely sick or dying inmates who pose no risk.

All states must consider greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders, as well as repealing harsh drug laws and mandatory sentencing policies, including three-strike laws, which result in unreasonably long prison stays.

Unacceptably high incarceration rates tear at the nation's social fabric and take public money from education, health care, transportation and other vital needs. Nor have they significantly reduced crime. It's time to re-examine the policies that have made us the incarceration nation.

Hat tip: Sentencing Law & Policy blog

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New MMPI scale invalid as forensic lie detector, courts rule

Injured plaintiffs falsely branded malingerers?

Psychology's most widely used personality test, the MMPI, jumped into the national spotlight today in a fascinating David-and-Goliath controversy pitting corporate interests such as Halliburton against the proverbial little guy.

At issue is the "Fake Bad Scale" that was incorporated into the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory last year for use in personal injury litigation. A front-page critique in today's Wall Street Journal includes publication of the items on the contested scale, a test security breach that will no doubt have the publisher seeing red.

Although a majority of forensic neuropsychologists said in a recent survey that they use the scale, critics say it brands too many people - especially women - as liars. Research finding an unacceptably large false-positive rate includes a large-scale study by MMPI expert James Butcher, who found that the scale classified high percentages of bonafide psychiatric inpatients as fakers.

One possible reason for this is that the scale includes many items that people with true pain or trauma-induced disorders might endorse, such as "My sleep is fitful and disturbed" and "I have nightmares every few nights." Yet hearing the term "Fake Bad" will likely make a prejudicial impact on jurors even if they hear from opposing experts who say a plaintiff is not faking.

The controversy came to a head last year in two Florida courtrooms, where judges barred use of the scale after special hearings on its scientific validity. In a case being brought against a petroleum company, a judge ruled that there was "no hard medical science to support the use of this scale to predict truthfulness.” Other recent cases in which the scale has been contested include one against Halliburton brought by a former truck driver in Iraq.

The 43-item scale was developed by psychologist Paul Lees-Haley, who works mainly for defendants in personal injury cases and charges $600 an hour for his depositions and court appearances, according to the Journal article. In 1991, he paid to have an article supportive of the scale published in Psychological Reports, which the WSJ describes as "a small Montana-based medical journal."

The scale was not officially incorporated into the MMPI until last year, after a panel of experts convened by the University of Minnesota Press reported that it was supported by a "preponderance of the current literature." Critics maintain that the review process was biased: At least 10 of the 19 studies considered were done by Lees-Haley or other insurance defense psychologists, while 21 other studies – including Butcher's – were allegedly excluded from consideration.

Later last year, the American Psychological Association's committee on disabilities protested to the publisher that the scale had been added to the MMPI prematurely.

Lees-Haley, meanwhile, defends the scale as empirically validated and says criticism is being orchestrated by plaintiff's attorneys such as Dorothy Clay Sims, who has written guides on how to challenge the Fake Bad scale in court.

Even if the scale was valid before today, questions are certain to arise about the extent to which it will remain valid once litigants start studying for it by using today's publication of all 43 items along with the scoring key.

The lesson for forensic practitioners: Be aware of critical literature and controversy surrounding any test that you use in a forensic context, and be prepared to defend your use of the test in court.

The article, "Malingerer Test Roils Personal-Injury Law; 'Fake Bad Scale' Bars Real Victims, Its Critics Contend," which includes ample details on the controversy, is only available to Wall Street Journal subscribers, but you can try retrieving it with a Google news search using the term "MMPI Fake Bad." The University of Minnesota Press webpage on the contested scale is here, along with a list of research citations.

Here are citations to the major pro and con research articles:

"Meta-analysis of the MMPI-2 Fake Bad Scale: Utility in forensic practice," Nelson, Nathaniel W., Sweet, Jerry J., & Demakis, George J., Clinical Neuropsychologist, Vol 20(1), Feb 2006, pp. 39-58

"The construct validity of the Lees-Haley Fake Bad Scale: Does this measure somatic malingering and feigned emotional distress?: Butcher, James N., Arbisi, Paul A., & Atlis, Mera M., Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, Vol 18(5), Jul 2003, pp. 473-485.

Postscript: Test distributor Pearson Assessments responded with alacrity - not to the heart of the controversy but to the Journal's reprinting of test items. The company, which
makes a mint from selling and scoring the MMPI and other psychological tests,got the WSJ to remove the online link to the test items. In a "news flash," Pearson says it is "evaluating the impact of the article" and asks psychologists to report any other instances of "illegal" reproduction of the scale in publications, websites, chat rooms, or blogs.

NOTE: For more of my posts about the MMPI-2's Fake Bad Scale, search the blog using the term "MMPI" (the search box is in the upper left corner of the page).

Monday, March 3, 2008

New draft of forensic psychology ethics guidelines

At 17 years old, the ethics guidelines for forensic psychologists are ancient considering all of the changes in the field since 1991. A revision to these Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists has been in the works for several years now. The previous draft by the revisions committee of the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychological Association) came out two years ago, in January of 2006. Finally, the long-awaited third official draft has been released and is open for public comments. The latest changes to the guidelines will also be the topic of a presentation at the AL-LS annual convention in Jacksonville later this week. For those of you who are attending the convention (I won’t be there this year), the presentation is on Saturday at 4:45 p.m.

The Specialty Guidelines are "aspirational," meaning they recommend but don't mandate appropriate professional behavior and conduct for forensic psychologists. They are meant to be used in conjunction with applicable laws, rules and regulations, and ethics codes such as that of the American Psychological Association.

Public comments on the latest draft can be emailed to sgfpdraft@yahoo.com or mailed to Randy Otto, Ph.D., 13301 North 30th Street, Tampa, FL 33612. When submitting comments please identify the specific section you are referencing (e.g., 7.01, 8.03.03) and provide recommended alternative language when appropriate.

The third draft is available here. The previous (2006) draft is here; the original guidelines are here.

 
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