Saturday, September 12, 2009

Court roundup: Lots of action this week

In addition to the high-profile competency hearing in Iowa that I blogged about yesterday, this week featured lots of other legal happenings of relevance to forensic psychology. Issues included:

  • The Zoloft defense
  • Repressed memory
  • Transsexual prisoners
  • Child pornography sentencing
Here are some highlights, with links so you can read more if you are interested:

"Zoloft made me do it"

In a New York trial that is drawing national attention, a defendant is blaming a 2006 attack on his girlfriend on symptoms of withdrawal from the antidepressant Zoloft.

To bolster his defense, Brandon Hampson is expected to call Dr. Stefan Kruszewski, a Harvard Medical School graduate. Dr. Kruszewski testified at a pretrial hearing that Zoloft can cause "significant side effects," including agitation, aggression and grandiosity.

It's going to be yet another case of dueling experts: An associate clinical professor at Harvard is expected to testify that "Kruszewski's opinion is not generally accepted by experts in the field and was based on flawed research methods," according to an article by Vesselin Mitev in the New York Law Journal. In an unusual payment arrangement, Pfizer (the drug's manufacturer) will compensate Dr. Douglas Jacobs $7,500 for his testimony.

The trial harkens back to a rash of cases in which violence and suicidality were attributed to the effects of Prozac. Severe side effects from withdrawal from other antidepressants such as Paxil are well documented.

Transsexual prisoner rights

In a history-making ruling in the United Kingdom, a preoperative male-to-female transsexual has won the right to be housed in a women's prison. The prisoner, known only as "A," will have to be housed in segregation. "A" is serving a life sentence for killing a boyfriend and trying to rape a woman.

Under the ruling by a judge on London's High Court, holding "A" in a men's prison is a breah of human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Telegraph of UK has the story. My March 2008 post on transgender prisoners is here.

Repressed memories under assault

The infamous priest Paul Shanley of Boston, one of the central figures in the clergy sex abuse scandal, is back in court challenging his conviction by claiming that theories of repressed memories are not reliable or valid.

Shanley was convicted after a 27-year-old man claimed the priest had regularly raped him when he was just six years old, but that he blocked out the memories for two decades until he saw media reports about the clergy scandal unfolding in Boston.

Reports Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press:
Shanley's lawyer, Robert Shaw Jr., argues that Shanley deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading, 'junk science' testimony about repressed memories by prosecution witnesses. 'His conviction rests upon a theory that is false, that has not been shown to exist and has been rejected by the scientific community,' Shaw said. 'They needed repressed memories to normalize for the jury what was otherwise an extraordinary assertion - that he could be completely oblivious that this ever happened and then remember it 20 years later."
The appeal, to be heard by Massachusetts' high court, "is being closely watched by experts on both sides of the issue," Lavoie reports. "Nearly 100 scientists, psychiatrists and researchers have signed a friend-of-the court brief denouncing the theory of repressed-recovered memories. Another group has submitted a brief supporting the theory."

Judges protest child porn sentencing


Federal judges testified before a U.S. Sentencing Commission in Chicago about severe mandatory sentences for child pornography possession. Astonishingly, the punishment for watching a single video can be higher than that for raping a child repeatedly over many years, one judge testified.

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog has coverage.

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