January 23, 2008

Appellate courts grapple with controversial sex offender risk assessment tools

Rulings on Abel and Static 99

Without scientific-sounding risk assessment tools, forensic psychologists in the sex offender civil commitment industry would have a hard time earning a living. Increasingly, instruments designed specifically for this burgeoning industry are being scrutinized by the courts. Here are two new appellate cases in point:

Louisiana appellate court approves profiling with Abel

In a troubling ruling out of Louisiana, an appellate court OK'd expert witness testimony that a man was 81 percent likely to have molested a child based on his psychological test results.

Interpreting the defendant's scores on the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest, clinical psychologist Maureen Brennan had testified that "there is an 81 percent chance that anyone with that pattern has at some point in their life been sexually inappropriate with a child" and that the defendant would falsely deny that fact.

After hearing that powerful testimony back in 2006, a jury deliberated only one hour before convicting schoolteacher Timothy Brannon of Beauregard Parish of all 12 counts against him.

Over defense objections, the trial judge had qualified Dr. Brennan as an expert in the "characteristics and diagnosis of child sexual abuse and perpetrators."

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals found no problem with Dr. Brennan's testimony, including her use of the Rorschach inkblot testing to help predict Brannon's conduct. Among other reasons for not finding error, the appellate court pointed out that substantial other evidence implicated the schoolteacher.

Both the Abel instrument and the Rorschach are highly controversial in court. Abel has responded to criticisms by clarifying that the instrument is not intended to assist triers of fact to reach decisions about an individual's guilt or innocence. The Abel uses visual reaction times to sexual imagery to deduce individuals' relative sexual interests in different types of people.

Even more importantly, even when reliable and valid psychological tests are administered, the science is never strong enough to assign a mathematical probability of guilt.

I have placed the opinion online here.

7th Circuit questions reliability of Static 99

In this case, 31-year-old Christopher McIlrath was appealing his 4-year sentence in an internet sting conviction. He argued that the trial judge improperly dismissed the testimony of forensic psychologist Eric Ostrov, who had administered the Static 99 actuarial risk assessment tool and testified that McIlrath matched the characteristics of offenders with a 9 to 13 percent chance of recidivism.

The appellate court rejected McIlrath’s argument that he should have been sentenced just to home confinement based on the Static 99 data. While not directly ruling on the admissibility of the instrument (the rules of evidence don’t apply at sentencing hearings), the court expressed skepticism about the Static 99’s reliability in predicting recidivism risk.

The EvidenceProf blog has more on that case; the case itself can be found here.

Hat tip: Wendy Murphy