January 30, 2008

Is Dr. Phil actually a psychologist?

No, actually he is not. But he does play one on TV. Had he not recently "stepped in it," most professionals would probably just think of him as an entertainer who happens to have a professional degree. Despite the uproar, he probably didn't cause himself any legal problems by visiting that hospital or by making a public statement. But he may have crossed over a line when he went on the air and explained himself.

This is the start of a thoughtful analysis by Sacramento forensic psychologist Paul Mattiuzzi that goes on to answer the following questions currently being debated in the public arena:
  • What's the big deal about whether he's licensed or not?
  • Is Dr. Phil going to be disciplined?
  • What's probably going to happen?
  • Did Dr. Phil really and intentionally mislead the public?
  • Shouldn't he just do the right thing and get a license?
The essay is at the Everyday Psychology blog.

My Jan. 10 post on the Dr. Phil - Britney Spears controversy, "Dr. Phil controversy highlights public confusion over psychology," is here.

Calif. prison anti-violence program needs volunteers

This invitation comes from Dr. Jay Adams, a psychologist who is retired from the California Department of Corrections:
The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) began 33 years ago at a prison in New York, when a prisoner group sought help from the Quakers in how to communicate their message about the consequences of violence to youth gangs and at-risk teenagers.

Since that modest inception, AVP has expanded to offer workshops in prisons all over the United States and even internationally. Research has shown that the intervention can dramatically reduce both recidivism and prison misconduct.

AVP workshops train participants in how to lead nonviolent lives through affirmation, mutual respect, community building, cooperation and trust. AVP is based on the belief that there is a power for peace and good in everyone, and that this power can transform violence. It builds upon a spiritual base of respect and caring for self and others.

As a psychologist at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, I was involved in the initial efforts to bring AVP into the prison. Now CMC is about to celebrate 7 years of AVP, and I have been able to participate as a facilitator since retiring from CDCR. One of the most inspiring things about this experience is to see men of different racial backgrounds share a safe space and open up to each other. Many wardens and other state officials have recognized the value of AVP, so that we are now active in 11 prisons and are being invited into more.

We want to be able to meet this need and are seeking more community volunteers. AVP is not something you study, but something you do. No need to take notes or memorize anything. You can take AVP workshops purely for your own personal growth or to become a facilitator in your community or in a California prison.

A Basic workshop is scheduled for February 22-24 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. in Santa Barbara, and another is planned in the Fresno area. AVP will even help you find housing if you need it.

For more information on the workshops, email Genie or call her at (805) 565-1887. The
AVP/California website has more information on the program.

January 29, 2008

Notorious pedophile dies in prison

Kenneth Parnell, one of California's most infamous child molesters, died Monday night of natural causes, bringing to a close a strange and warped story in the annals of pedophilia.

I recall Parnell's trial vividly, as it was top news back in 1981, when I was a journalism student. I even wrote a term paper analyzing coverage of the case. Parnell was convicted of abducting 7-year-old Steven Stayner and keeping the boy confined for more than 7 years, until his escape in 1980.

Stayner became something of a hero for freeing Parnell’s next would-be victim, 5-year-old Timmy White. But Stayner went on to tragedy, dying in a motorcycle accident in 1989.

Stranger yet, Stayner's brother Cary Stayner went on to become a serial killer of women in Yosemite National Park; he's currently on San Quentin's Death Row.

(A little stream of consciousness here - I was just over at San Quentin this morning, and happened to observe filming of an upcoming Clint Eastwood movie, "The Changeling," about the bizarre events surrounding a man sentenced to hang for the murder-rape-kidnaps of little boys back in the 1920s. Very cool vintage taxi they had driving up and down by the main prison gate; I believe star Angelina Jolie will be riding in it in the movie, although neither she nor Eastwood were in evidence at the prison today.)

Anyway, back to the Parnell case. After serving his time, Parnell was paroled to Berkeley. A sickly and doddering 71-year-old, in 2004 he tried to buy a 4-year-old child from his caretaker for yet another round of child molestation. So much for the hope that old age and infirmity automatically preclude sexual reoffending.

"Kenneth Parnell's death brings to a close his long criminal history of victimizing young children," said Alameda County deputy district attorney Tim Wellman, who prosecuted Parnell in the 2004 case.

He died at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville after a long illness.

The Crime Library has a detailed case history; Wikipedia also has a biography.

Meanwhile, shocking revelations by Canadian pathologist

Let's turn now from the Masters to a case of expert witness malfeasance that's been sending shockwaves through the criminal justice system up in Canada. Back in November, I blogged a couple of times about forensic pathologist Charles Smith, whose decades of expert testimony for the government compounded the misery of grieving parents by sending many to prison for the accidental deaths of their children.

This week, Dr. Smith took the stand in the ongoing judicial inquiry and made a couple of shocking revelations:

1. Biased for prosecution

Most shockingly, he admitted that, far from being the neutral scientist he portrayed himself to be, he actually was biased in favor of the prosecutors who hired him.

"I honestly believed it was my role to support the Crown attorney. I was there to make a case look good," he admitted in his first day of testimony before an ongoing judicial inquiry into what went wrong in the cases.

2. "Ignorant"

Second, he admitted that he was "profoundly ignorant" of the criminal justice system. In stating this, he apologized for the "mistakes" he made during some two decades of performing child autopsies in cases of suspicious death.

3. Trained others experts

Despite now admitting to bias and ignorance, back in the day Dr. Smith lectured other doctors on how to be an expert witness in court. In court today, he was shown a speech he delivered entitled, "See You in Court: The Invitation You Can't Refuse," in which he cautioned doctors never to be an advocate for one side or the other. How's that for hypocrisy.

Among those whose lives were torn apart by Smith’s "mistakes" are several mothers who spent years in jail until the cases against them fell apart, and a man who was finally exonerated after spending more than a decade in prison for the death of his niece.

One commonality among many of the cases was the socioeconomic status of the accused, who included racial minorities, aboriginals, and single mothers. Although the adversarial system is premised on an equal fight between the accused and the government, economically disadvantages defendants do not have the wherewithal to obtain their own experts to challenge the government's experts. This is especially dangerous when the expert – as in Smith’s case - appears neutral, well qualified, and scientific.

These multiple emerging scandals - which include the Colorado case of Tim Masters, the British case of Sir Roy Meadows (who falsely accusing dozens of mothers of so-called "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy") and the Mississippi case of forensic odontologist Michael West - are driving home the fact that experts are not infallible and should not be accepted without skepticism.

More on the Smith hearings, including video coverage, is at the Toronto Star and the Charles Smith Blog. My prior posts on the case are here and here. My blog post on forensic odontologist Michael West (a bite-mark expert) is here.

Masters scandal highlights need for oversight of prosecutors

Revelations of official malfeasance such as occurred in the Tim Masters case cause a massive erosion of public confidence in the judicial system. The potential upside is reforms to safeguard other citizens from being similarly railroaded.

For example, "Masters is free, but justice not yet served" is the headline of a hard-hitting editorial in the Coloradoan, calling for just such reforms.

But reforms will not come easy. As a new book explains, prosecutors in the United States wield ever-growing power under new laws granting them unfettered "prosecutorial discretion" in charging and sentencing decisions.

Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor is the book, authored by public defender Angela J. Davis (no, she's not the same Angela Davis you're probably thinking of).

Arbitrary Justice does two things:
  • It exposes the "dangerous shift in power from judges to prosecutors" (in the words of law prof Barry Schenk of Innocence Project fame) happening in the courthouse trenches.
  • It provides a detailed agenda for reforms aimed at safeguarding defendants, victims, and the public at large.
Hat tip: Corrections Sentencing. Photo is of author Angela J. Davis. See more about the book at its dedicated web site. More blog posts on the Tim Masters case are listed here.

January 25, 2008

Japanese may record police interrogations

A series of highly publicized wrongful conviction cases in the Western world has led to vigorous debate over coercive police tactics and whether all interrogations should be recorded. Now, with its own recent revelations of coerced confessions, the Japanese criminal justice system is confronting the same issues.

The debate in Japan centers around next year's introduction of a lay-judge system, in which citizens will begin serving in juror-like capacities for the first time. The new system will require police to present to these non-professionals what suspects said during police questioning.

The Supreme Court, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office have set up a panel to discuss filming interrogations, with the bar federation demanding the introduction of cameras.

The full story is in today’s Daily Yomiuri online.

Teen male violence linked to aggressive sports

The sports culture surrounding football and wrestling may be fueling violence among teen male players and also among their male friends, according to a Penn State study released this week.

"Sports such as football, basketball, and baseball provide players with a certain status in society," said Derek Kreager, assistant professor of sociology in the Crime, Law, and Justice program. "But football and wrestling are associated with violent behavior because both sports involve some physical domination of the opponent, which is rewarded by the fans, coaches and other players."

Analyzing data from about 7,000 male students at 120 schools, the researchers found that football players and wrestlers were especially likely to get into serious fights. Perhaps more startingly, just having football-playing friends predicted violence among boys who were not athletes.

The Penn State press release is here.

Hat tip: Kirk Witherspoon

Killing time: Dead men waiting on Oregon's death row

Today's Willamette Week of Portland, Oregon has a hard-hitting expose of capital punishment in that northwestern mecca, complete with an interactive display of the 35 men on death row. Here are excerpts; the complete story is here.

. . . Whether you’re for or against capital punishment, you should be outraged by what's happening. To please the tough-on-crime crowd, we keep the death penalty. But to appease progressives, or to assuage our own conscience, nobody actually gets killed. . . .

Yet for the most part, this shameful situation stays hidden. Death row is tucked away on the third floor of a building deep inside the Oregon State Penitentiary. The rarely used execution chamber is behind locked doors in the same prison. And no executions means no front-page headlines.

"A lot of people aren’t even aware that we have a death penalty here," says Rachel Hardesty, a Portland State University criminal justice professor who has spent a decade studying capital punishment in Oregon. . . .

Nationwide, experts say capital cases are 20 times more expensive to prosecute because of the length of appeals. Oregon officials don't make guesses about how much it will cost here, because after 24 years of letting juries sentence killers to death, not a single case has yet gone all the way through the appeals system.

But Bill Long, a Willamette University law professor and death penalty opponent who wrote the only book on capital punishment in Oregon, has estimated Oregon's oldest cases could end up costing more than $10 million per defendant (the national average for capital cases is around $3 million). . . . Added up for all 35 capital-punishment cases, that totals $35.7 million in public-safety money. . . .

Meanwhile, there are about 50 more defendants currently charged with death penalty crimes in Oregon, which will suck more than $50 million more out of the state budget if the defendants are sentenced to death. Despite the expense, they may never see execution. Nationwide, only 12 percent of people who are sentenced to death are actually executed.

That leaves even death penalty proponents questioning whether the cost is worth it.
Hat tip: Sentencing Law & Policy

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

By popular demand: Expert testimony at Masters trial

Readers wondered if I knew how to obtain the actual transcript of forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy's testimony at the trial of Tim Masters. (That's the apparent wrongful conviction case that I've blogged about most recently here). So, by popular demand, I've uploaded the transcript here:


Dr. Meloy waxes eloquent on sexual homicide, rehearsal fantasies, the paraphilia of picquerism, the Rorschach inkblot test, and more. He psychoanalyzes the 15-year-old Masters' military fiction and violent drawings of Freddy Krueger. On cross-examination, he even references his own sexually sadistic and predatory fantasies. Happy reading!

January 22, 2008

Are juries fair?

Whether you think so may depend on your race, according to the results of a Harris Poll released yesterday.

Not surprisingly, most white respondents said yes. Most African Americans said no.

To some extent, both answers may be right. Whether the jury system is fair may depend a lot on the race of the person being judged. At least that's what an expert witness testified just last week, at an ongoing hearing in Cape Cod, Massachusetts over whether a black man convicted of murder should get a new trial.

Christopher McCowen was convicted of murder by a mainly white jury. Within two weeks of his conviction, three jurors came forward with concerns about allegedly racist remarks made by other jurors. One juror, for example, reportedly argued during deliberations that blacks were more violent.

Sam Sommers, a Tufts University psychology professor who's done some intriguing research on jury deliberations (see my recent post), testified last week that this stereotype of black men as violent is pervasive, even among individuals who believe themselves to be fair-minded.

Sommers' research on jury deliberations helps explain the racial gap found by the Harris pollsters.

The pollsters found some other interesting things:
  • Although most Americans have been called for jury duty, fewer than a quarter have actually served.
  • More educated people are even less likely to serve.
That latter finding (about which the Drug and Device Law blog has more to say) is too bad for scientific expert witnesses, because educated people find it easier to grasp the technical concepts about which we are often called to testify.

Hat tip to the Deliberations blog. More resources on jury deliberations are available at my Jan. 3 post on Sommers' research. The Cape Cod Times has ongoing coverage of the McCowen case.

January 19, 2008

Breaking news flash: DNA evidence may exonerate Masters

I've been blogging about the fascinating case of Tim Masters in Colorado, who was convicted in part based on a prominent forensic psychologist's testimony about his doodles.

Yesterday, in a stunning development in the twisting case, it was announced that reanalysis of the DNA linked it to a different man who had once been a suspect in the case. The prosecutor has recommended that Masters be freed pending a new trial, but police detectives are stubbornly sticking with their original theory that the 15-year-old Masters was the killer.

Jan. 22 postscript: Tim Masters is being freed today. He was busy packing his family photos and other belongings but was planning to leave behind his television, coffee pot, and prison-issued clothes. The Daily Camera has the story.

CNN has the story and related links.

For more background, especially on the forensic psychology angle, see my earlier posts, including:

Fascinating new twists in Tim Masters case

The Scary Doodles case

Did forensic profile go too far?

Daryl Atkins, Lindsey Lohan, and the Cuckoo's Nest

This week has seen lots of interesting forensic news. A few highlights, with links:

Daryl Atkins' sentence commuted

On Thursday, more than five years after Daryl Atkins made legal history with a U.S. Supreme Court ban on executions of the mentally retarded, a judge commuted his death sentence to life in prison.

The reprieve came for reasons that few would have guessed during the ever twisting, nearly 12-year course of the case, which had focused largely on Atkins's mental limitations. Instead, it resulted from an allegation that prosecutors suppressed evidence prior to Atkins's murder trial in 1998.

The Washington Post has the story.

Cuckoo’s Nest still crazy

Most people know Oregon State Hospital only for the movie that it was based on, 1975's award-winning "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

Well, it looks like Nurse Ratched never retired. A U.S. Justice Department report issued Wednesday cites numerous horror stories, including patient-on-patient assaults, outbreaks of infectious diseases, and a patient being held in seclusion without treatment for a year.

State officials said things have improved since the 2006 investigation, and that conditions at the crumbling, century-old psychiatric hospital are a symptom of years of neglect and underfunding of the entire public mental health system.

The Oregonian has the story. Also online are the federal report and a Pulitzer prize-winning series from the Oregonian, "Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital."

Better news from the other side of the country -
No more "hole" for mentally ill prisoners

On Tuesday, New York's legislature approved a landmark law to remove severely mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement in prison and place them in secure treatment facilities.

Prisons will also be required to conduct periodic mental health assessments of all prisoners in segregated or special housing units known as SHUs, where they are typically locked up for 23 to 24 hours a day.

New York has had more prisoners in segregated units for disciplinary purposes than any state. Confinement in tiny cells for 23 to 24 hours a day is known to seriously worsen psychiatric illnesses, which are suffered by large numbers of prisoners. (See my online essay on segregation psychosis for more on this topic.)

The governor is expected to sign the law, paving the way for construction of the new residential mental health units.

Newsday and the Poughkeepsie Journal have more.

Online registry for domestic violence?

In another example of the potentially endless expansion of symbolic laws, a California lawmaker has introduced a bill to develop an online database of domestic violence offenders, modeled after the popular sex offender databases.

Although the San Jose Mercury News is reporting this as the first such law proposed in the United States, I blogged last June about a similar effort in Pennsylvania.

Whatever state gets to it first, it's just another misguided, tough-on-crime attempt to get votes, in my opinion. Why?

First, it is costly and likely to divert funds from existing domestic violence programs that are already facing cutbacks. (This week's Boston Globe, for example, reports that women are waiting weeks for scarce beds in battered women's shelters, forcing them to return to their abusers and face greater danger.)

Second, as mentioned by a spokeswoman for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, a victims' advocacy group, women who have been wrongfully convicted of assaulting their abusers will likely find their names on the registry, creating further victimization.

Third, and most important in my opinion, is that these registries do more harm than good. They don't stop crime. All they do is stigmatize. The more they expand, the harder it is for people to get jobs, find housing, and be rehabilitated. And the number of candidate pools is endless: Drug offenders. Drunk drivers. Terrorists. Antiwar protesters. Traffic light violators.

The Mercury News has the story.

But what about Lindsey Lohan?

Oh yes, since I've been doing the celebrity blog thing lately, reporting on the Britney Spears-Phillip McGraw controversy, I must not neglect the innovative sentence handed down on Thursday to Ms. Lohan.

The L.A. courts have a program to show drivers the real-life consequences of drinking and driving. So as part of her sentence for misdemeanor drunk driving the 21-year-old actress must work at a morgue and a hospital emergency room for a couple of days each. I think it's a great idea. And maybe it will give her fodder for new acting roles. I'm rooting for her to get past all of this mess and get on with her promising career.

The Associated Press has the story.

January 17, 2008

Crime fears hijack science, make people sick

Crime calls forth so many emotions. Fascination. Horror. Anxiety. But probably most of all, fear.

Fear is a powerful emotion. In deft hands, it can drive public policy and create laws that engender more fear and more laws, in an escalating spiral.

In part due to this spiral, the crime-fighting industry has grown staggeringly. It's big business around the world. And that, of course, leads to - what else? - more fear of crime. The cult of crime dominates not only government, the news media and the entertainment industries but, increasingly, the fields of science and technology.

Indeed, one could argue that science and technology are being hijacked away from other, more productive ventures by the relentless focus on crime. Let's go to England for a couple examples of this.

"SmartWater" is a perfect example.

SmartWater a high-tech crime-fighting solution prominent in the UK. A special sprinkler sprays intruders with an invisible fluid containing a unique code connecting the crook to that specific location. At present, 15,000 homes and 117 schools in the town of Doncaster are armed with SmartWater. Think about the scientific resources that went into developing this tool.

Here's a fun fact: Three out of four criminals surveyed said they wouldn't break into a building if they saw the SmartWater logo on display.

I'm not kidding. This is from an actual study, done by a criminology researcher at the University of Leicester in England. How’s that for free advertising?

Microchip implants?

More controversial than SmartWater is the British plan to reduce prison overcrowding and keep track of sex offenders by injecting microchip tracking devices like those used on dogs, cats and cattle into the arms of offenders. One company plans deeper implants that could administer electroshock, broadcast messages, or even serve as microphones to transmit conversations.

Now, think about how society might benefit if -- instead of being diverted to high-tech crime-busting tools like these -- all of this money and scientific expertise was rechanneled to, say, innovative ways of combating heart disease.

Why heart disease?

Well, all roads leading back to Rome, it turns out that fear of crime may actually cause heart disease.

That's the finding from a study published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The researchers found that people who worried most about terrorism in the wake of 9/11 were way more likely than the rest of us to develop cardiovascular illness.

No matter that their chance of dying at the hands of international terrorists is about the same as the risk of being struck by an asteroid or, heaven forbid, drowning in a toilet.

Click here to watch a video of the lead researcher in the terrorism study, Alison Holman of the University of California at Irvine, discussing the findings. John Tierney, a science writer for the New York Times, has more to say here about how the "terrorism industry" distorts risks. More links on fear of terrorism are here.

Photo credit: IZ, "Industry of Fear" (Creative Commons license)

January 16, 2008

Costly SVP law enriching psychologists without netting more predators

With California children sharing textbooks in dilapidated schools where "riding the bus" is slang for mental illness, California is throwing away an extra $27 million a year evaluating more sex offenders under a new state law that's netting almost no additional culprits.

"Sex predator laws coming up empty" is the headline of that sad story in today's Contra Costa Times.

Under the expanded Sexually Violent Predator law passed by voters in 2006, more than 10 times as many men are being screened for possible civil commitment before being paroled from prison. But this drastic increase isn't radically increasing how many are being civilly committed as a danger to the public, because the old law was already catching most of the real bad guys.

The extra $27 million is only for psychological screenings. It doesn't include the added costs to house the backlog of prisoners awaiting evaluations. Almost six times as many prisoners are being detained at the state mental hospital in Coalinga past their parole dates, at a cost of about $12,500 a month each (more than twice the cost of a prison bed), according to the Contra Costa Times article.

Critics point out that the state has spent more than $1 billion on the SVP program to date, including the cost of building the new hospital in Coalinga, all to get fewer than 600 men off the streets.

Although this might not sound like much of a catch, there's one group I haven't heard complaining: the state evaluators. Some have seen their annual earnings from SVP evaluations and court testimony skyrocket to about $1 million. And that doesn't include their income from other work.

You can be sure that the largely working- and middle-class folks who serve on the typical jury at SVP civil commitment trials raise their eyebrows when they hear about this bonanza.

"It's silly, really,” Doug Tucker, a San Francisco Bay Area psychiatrist who does SVP evaluations for the state of Washington, commented to Times reporter John Simerman. "It's good employment for psychologists, but it doesn't really achieve anything. You're going to get a lot of people who don't have a sexual disorder, who just got drunk."

Photo credit: Rachael (Creative Commons license)

New book on cutting-edge controversies in psychology-law

Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in the Courtroom
Edited by Eugene Borgida and Susan T. Fiske

So many books are pouring out these days on forensic psychology and psychology-law that my first thought was, Do we really need another one? But when I took a look at the contributors and the topics I changed my mind. Why? Because this book focuses on the influences of stereotypes and prejudice, topics too often overlooked.

Says Claude Steele, the Stanford University scholar of stereotype-busting fame:
This world-class collection of scholars and researchers upends our common sense understandings of human prejudice and the law's ability to control it. Yet, just as importantly, it brings to the fore a vastly deeper understanding of these issues. It is more than a state of the art collection. It is a classic collection that, for a long time, will be indispensable to discussions of prejudice and the law, as well as the relationship between science and the public good.
Here's more, from the book's description:
Beyond Common Sense
addresses the many important and controversial issues that arise from the use of psychological and social science in the courtroom.
  • Chapters by leading experts in the field of psychology and law including Elizabeth Loftus, Saul Kassin, Faye Crosby, Alice Eagly, Gary Wells, Louise Fitzgerald, Craig Anderson, and Phoebe Ellswort
  • Each chapter identifies areas of scientific agreement and disagreement, and discusses how psychological science advances an understanding of human behavior beyond what is accessible by common sense
  • The 14 issues addressed include eyewitness identification, gender stereotypes, repressed memories, Affirmative Action, and the death penalty -- among others
  • Commentaries written by 7 leading social science and law scholars discuss key legal and scientific themes that emerge from the science chapters and illustrate how psychological science is or can be used in the courts.

January 10, 2008

"Dr. Phil" controversy highlights public confusion over psychology

The uproar over Phillip McGraw's intrusive interaction with Britney Spears raises a number of interesting issues about clinical psychology and the privacy rights of hospital patients.

As most of you know by now, McGraw barged into Spears' hospital room January 5, apparently without an invitation from the beleaguered pop star. After soliciting her appearance on his TV advice show, he issued a public statement about her condition.

In the wake of this incident, some have accused McGraw of violating doctor-patient confidentiality. But McGraw is not a doctor, nor was Spears his patient.

Much of the public confusion on this point is due to the TV personality's use of the title "Doctor." Like Laura Schlessinger, the conservative radio pundit with a Ph.D. in physiology who calls herself "Dr. Laura," anyone with a doctoral degree is technically a doctor (of philosophy). But to engage in therapy as a clinical psychologist, a person must also be licensed in the appropriate state. While McGraw holds a doctoral degree in psychology, he is not licensed as a psychologist or a mental health practitioner in any state.

Once upon a time, McGraw really was licensed as a clinical psychologist. In 1989, the Texas board that licenses psychologists disciplined him for an inappropriate "dual relationship" with a 19-year-old patient. (McGraw denies the young woman's claim that the relationship was sexual.) The Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists ordered him to take an ethics class and have his practice supervised for a year. He subsequently stopped practicing therapy and started a jury consultation firm, Courtroom Sciences Inc. (CSI). It was in this capacity that he met Oprah Winfrey, then fighting a lawsuit by the beef industry, who boosted him into the world of show biz.

His haranguing style of voyeuristic quasi-therapy has proved enormously popular. Last year, he netted 6.7 million viewers and earned a whopping $45 million.

What’s the attraction? Some scholars have compared it to a religious conversion narrative, involving a confession, a testimonial, a moral authority (Dr. Phil), and an instant cure.

"It's the quintessential cultural product," said media consultant Ellen McGrath, also a psychologist. "Get some quick advice and change your life. You, too, can hit the psychological jackpot…. It's a spectator sport to watch someone be humiliated. It's the psychological version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Bottom line: Since McGraw (much like Britney Spears) is a celebrity icon rather than a licensed professional, he is not governed by any code of medical ethics or by the state and federal rules and regulations that apply to licensed clinical psychologists.

What about the hospital? Some have suggested that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center may have violated Spears' privacy rights when they allowed McGraw into her hospital room with her permission. But even that claim is somewhat tenuous, since her parents invited him into the hospital.

Ironically, amidst all of the fury over whether McGraw or the hospital violated any legal or ethical rules, other professionals who are exploiting Britney Spears' problems have escaped reproach. For example, three clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are quoted in an online gossip magazine as publicly diagnosing Spears with everything from mania to borderline personality disorder to a "genetic predisposition" to depression.

The Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association has several sections addressing drive-by assessments conducted without benefit of personal evaluation.

Ethical Standard 9.01 states that, in general, psychologists should only provide opinions about someone's psychological characteristics after having conducted an examination adequate to support their statements or conclusions. More broadly, Principle E, "Respect for People's Rights and Dignity," states that psychologists respect "the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination."

These self-same spokespersons for psychology and psychiatry call themselves by their first names, a la "Dr. Phil," and one is even premiering his own online TV show tonight - a live celebrity rehab show.

Between "Doctor" Phillip McGraw and the rest of these spokespeople, it's no wonder some members of the the public are confused, not to mention a bit leery of the mental health profession.

For more information:

"Do the rules apply to Dr. Phil?" New York Times, Jan. 10, 2008

"Analyze This," Dallas Observer, April 13, 2000 (background on McGraw’s career; information on legal cases involving Dr. Phil can be found here and here).

"Patient in the spotlight," Newsweek, Jan. 8, 2008

"Spears clan calls foul on Dr. Phil's blabbermouth," E! Online, Jan. 9, 2008

Photo credit r5d4 (Creative Commons license)

January 9, 2008

Historic hearings to commence on Calif. death penalty

Amid renewed national controversy over capital punishment, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice is holding public hearings beginning tomorrow on the death penalty in California. At the first hearing, a lineup of luminaries will present evidence about racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities in who is sentenced to die.

The Commission was created by the state Senate in 2004 to investigate the causes of wrongful conviction and wrongful executions, and to recommend reforms to make California's criminal justice system "just, fair, and accurate." Composed of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and citizens, the Commission has already issued a series of unanimous recommendations on other criminal justice issues, including:

(Click on any of the above links to see the related report.) A press release about the death penalty hearings, slated for January, February and March, is here.

January 7, 2008

Guest commentary: Prisoners of panic

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times featured a great opinion piece on the costly and out-of-control effects of tough-on-crime rhetoric. It was written by Joe Domanick, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. Mr. Domanick, author of "Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State," is currently at work on a book about California's prison system. With his permission, I'm posting the entire piece.

Guest commentary by Joe Domanick

Prisoners of panic: Media hype and political quick fixes have swelled our inmate population

from the L.A. Times, January 6, 2008
How much more folly, absurdity, fiscal irresponsibility and human tragedy will we endure before we stop tolerating the political pandering that has dictated our criminal justice law and policy over the last two decades?

The pattern has become all too clear. Our politicians, fearful of being labeled "soft on crime," react to sensationalistic coverage of a crime with knee-jerk, quick-fix answers. Only years later do the mistakes, false assumptions and unexpected consequences begin to emerge, and then the criminal justice system is forced to deal with the mess created by the bad lawmaking.

For example, remember the great crack scare of the 1980s? When basketball superstar Len Bias, who'd been drafted by the Boston Celtics as a franchise player, died of a crack overdose, the media went wild in covering it. Alarmed by the sudden increase in crack use and fearful that the drug was highly addictive and disposed users to commit violence, Congress mandated tough minimum sentences for crack-related crimes. A defendant convicted of possessing a small amount of crack could receive the same sentence as one possessing 100 times that amount of powder cocaine. Because crack users were disproportionately African American (and powder cocaine users were disproportionately white), 85% of those receiving dealer-like sentences for possession or sale of small amounts of crack were black -- an outcome that helped to fuel widespread perceptions among blacks that there was a double standard of justice in the U.S.

In December, the overly harsh and misguided sentencing policy concocted during the "war on drugs" in the 1980s was finally modified. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges were no longer bound by the strict sentencing guidelines, freeing the jurists to craft punishment that best fits the crime and the background of the defendant.

The 1990s produced its own racially tinged crime panics. Led by John J. Dilulio Jr., a political scientist at Princeton University, and William J. Bennett, a former secretary of Education in the Reagan Cabinet, law-and-order proponents declared that the U.S. was being overrun by a new generation of remorseless "super-predators" spawned by crack-head mothers in violence-infested ghettos. Stories of kids committing heinous crimes were common in the media. One of the most sensational occurred in Chicago in October 1994. Two boys, one 10 years old, the other 11, dropped 5-year-old Eric Morse from the 14th floor of a housing project, killing him, because he refused to steal candy for them.

In response to such crimes, politicians across the country passed anti-super-predator laws. In many states, including California, the age kids could be tried as adults was lowered to 14, and in 48 states, the decision to try juveniles as adults was taken away from judges and given to prosecutors. As a result, the number of people under 18 tried as adults rose dramatically through the 1990s, and a small percentage of them were even sentenced to prison. Ironically, the predicted crime explosion caused by super-predators never materialized. Juvenile arrests declined by more than 45% from 1994 to 2004, according to FBI statistics.

But the ultimate example of media hype meeting irresponsible politicians to produce bad public policy is California's three-strikes law. It was chiefly written by Fresno photographer Mike Reynolds after the murder of his daughter, Kimber, in 1992.Introduced in the Legislature, the bill languished until the rape and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993. A network of right-wing talk-radio hosts reacted to the killing by fiercely promoting Reynolds' measure, which had provisions like no other three-strikes bill in that virtually any crime, no matter how petty, could be prosecuted as a third strike.

In 1994, the Legislature unanimously put the measure on the November ballot, and Proposition 184 passed easily. The law would eventually send thousands of Californians to prison for 25 years to life, some for such third-strike crimes as attempting to steal a bottle of vitamins from a drug store, buying a macadamia nut disguised as a $5 rock of cocaine from an undercover cop and shoplifting $2.69 worth of AA batteries.

Today, Californians are still paying the price for that folly and other like-minded laws, not just in the ruined and wasted lives of people sentenced under these laws, but in other ways. There are now tens of thousands of inmates in California convicted of nonviolent crimes and serving out long second- and third-strike sentences, as well as thousands more behind bars because minor crimes were turned into felonies with mandatory minimum sentences.

All these laws have contributed to severe overcrowding in the state's prisons -- as high as 200% of capacity -- that has produced conditions of such "extreme peril" for prisoners and guards that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to declare a systemwide state of emergency in 2006. Since 2003, the inmate population has grown 8%, to about 173,000. But the budget of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has skyrocketed 79%, to $8.5 billion, becoming the fastest-growing category in the state budget and a factor in opening up a $14-billion budget deficit.

The get-tough-on-crime laws also have helped create a crisis in California's prison healthcare system, where spending has risen to $1.9 billion a year, up 263% since 2000. A large part of the problem is that the prison population is aging because inmates are serving the longer sentences approved by lawmakers, and with aging comes more medical problems. The system became so understaffed and dysfunctional that a federal judge ruled that it was causing at least one avoidable death a week through sheer neglect and ineptitude. He has seized the entire prison medical system and placed it under his direct supervision.

Faced with the huge budget deficit and judicial threats to cap the state's prison population, Schwarzenegger's office has been floating the idea of early release for about 22,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. That 13% cut in prisoners, however, would require legislative approval, something that is by no means certain. The story of crime and punishment in California -- and the country -- since the 1980s, after all, has been quick-fix answers fueled by media hype. Let's hope that such proposals as releasing nonviolent inmates receive serious attention rather than panicky headlines that lead to bad criminal justice laws.

January 4, 2008

The death machine: "One thoroughly screwed-up system"

Just in time for next Monday's U.S. Supreme Court hearing on a challenge to the three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions, Time magazine has issued a scathing denunciation of the state of capital punishment in the United States. This follows negative publicity in Newsweek magazine a couple of months ago (see my blog post of Nov. 25, 2007). Perhaps wind is on my mind due to the incredible windstorm we're having here in the San Francisco Bay Area today, but I'm sensing winds of change in the air.

Here are some tantalizing excerpts from the no-holds-barred Time piece:
In a perfect world, perhaps, the government wouldn't wait 30 years and several hundred executions to determine whether an execution method makes sense....

Any other government program that delivered 3% of what it promised -- while costing millions of dollars more than the alternative -- would be a scandal, but the death penalty is different. In its ambiguity, complexity and excess, the system expresses a lot about who we are as a nation....

Our death penalty's continued existence, countering the trend of the rest of the developed world, expresses our revulsion to violent crime and our belief in personal accountability. The endless and expensive appeals reflect our scrupulous belief in consistency and individual justice….

We add safeguards one day, then shortcut them the next. One government budget contains millions of dollars for prosecutions, while another department spends more millions to defend against them. Indeed, the very essence of ambiguity is our vain search for a bloodless, odorless, motionless, painless, foolproof mode of killing healthy people….

We now have a situation in which a majority of the states that authorize the death penalty seldom if ever use it. Last year only 10 states carried out an execution. And even that number overstates the vigor of the system. If you don't count executions of inmates who voluntarily dropped their appeals and asked to be killed -- essentially government-assisted suicides -- the state count falls to eight….

The ungainly, ambivalent collapse of the death penalty seems unfitting for a punishment whose very existence is largely symbolic. But the trend is unmistakable.

The Supreme Court is part of this slow-motion shutdown of the death-penalty machine. In recent years the court has banned executions of mentally retarded inmates and of prisoners who committed their crimes as minors. The mere fact that the court is hearing the lethal-injection cases is historic because the institution has always been reluctant to inquire into the business end of the death penalty….

The discussion itself is another sign of the nation's ambivalence about the ultimate, irreversible punishment. And as long as we're ambivalent, we'll continue to have the system we have made for ourselves--inefficient, beyond repair and increasingly empty.
Hat tip to Sentencing Law & Policy for alerting me to this article.

January 3, 2008

Colorful juries more competent

At a holiday party, the topic of jury duty came up. Immediately, everyone started competing to tell how they "got out of" serving. That's too bad, I thought. These folks would all make fine jurors.

Last month, I was involved in a trial in which a group of citizens who did not shirk their civic duty voted to free a teenager facing life for a murder he did not commit. The defense attorney described the jury fondly as "colorful."

What's color got to do with it? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

A colorful, or racially diverse, group actually thinks better than a more homogeneous one. In a recent study, mixed-race juries performed better on all areas assessed, including:
  • Amount of information considered
  • Factual accuracy of deliberations
  • Thoroughness of analysis
  • Open-mindedness (especially about race)
Traditionally, people have assumed that the difference is because minority jurors bring different life experiences and perspectives to the group. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall put it more than 30 years ago, exclusion of "any large and identifiable segment of the community" removes "varieties of human experience" from the mix: "It is not necessary to assume that the excluded group will consistently vote as a class in order to conclude . . . that its exclusion deprives the jury of a perspective on human events that may have unsuspected importance in any case."

But new evidence suggests there is more to it than that: White jurors actually think more efficiently when they are faced with the prospect of being part of a diverse group. It's as if the goal of not being perceived as prejudiced, or of being accepted by others, switches the brain from autopilot to full-concentration mode.

In contrast, all-white juries tended to be lazy, inaccurate, superficial, and unwilling to discuss uncomfortable topics (especially race). At least that's what Samuel Sommers, the author of a recent study, found.

Interestingly, even bringing up the issue of race during voir dire questioning of potential jurors may increase open-mindedness and thoughtfulness, Sommers observed. (Asking questions like, for example, "Do you have any biases or prejudices that might prevent you from judging an African American defendant fairly?")

This makes sense, because modern racism is largely subtle and unconscious. In other words, people behave in biased ways while consciously thinking of themselves as fair-minded. So if you activate race as a salient issue, whites will more likely make conscious efforts to avoid prejudice.

The court-sponsored research used mock jurors who were drawn from actual jury pools in a Michigan county. The jurors were presented with a video of a Court TV case involving an African American man accused of sexually assaulting a white female.

Such research suggesting the superiority of multicultural juries is not likely to dissuade prosecutors from their frequent practice of removing Blacks through peremptory challenges. After all, predominately white juries are more punitive, especially toward non-white defendants. More thorough and efficient deliberations generally work in favor of the accused, especially if he is African American.

That's apparently what happened in the trial I just mentioned. After much deliberation, the "colorful" jury migrated from leaning toward guilt to outright acquittal.

Although I didn't get to be a fly on the wall inside of that deliberation room, I can imagine the scenario based on what I experienced when I served on a similarly colorful jury earlier this year. Unlike in the mock jury study described above, the case in which I was a juror did not explicitly involve race. The defendant, the victim, and the arresting officers all were white. Yet, as Justice Marshall predicted, the jury's diversity provided perspectives that would not otherwise have been considered. Several white jurors walked into the deliberations room ready to cast their vote (for guilty), thinking that the case was cut-and-dried. After a sometimes-heated discussion that lasted for days, they came to realize there was more to the case than initially met the eye. The vast economic and educational range - another great thing about American juries - also increased the range and quality of the deliberations.

I hope the above-described research is extended in the future to cases like this, in which race is not an explicit issue but still broadens (or colors, if you will) the deliberations.

* * * * *

The study is: Samuel Sommers (2006), "On racial diversity and group decision making: Identifying multiple effects in racial composition on jury deliberations," Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp. 597-612.

Other resources:

"Racial Bias in Jury Selection is Common Yet Denied, Study Finds"

"Jurors deliberate competently, study finds"

Samuel Sommers & Michael Norton (2006), "Race-based judgments, race-neutral justifications: Experimental examination of peremptory use and the Batson challenge procedure," Law & Human Behavior.

Jury & Democracy Project

"Harmful effects of unintentional racism"

Antonio et al (2004), "Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students," Psychological Science, Vol. 15, pp. 507-510.

Joel Lieberman and Bruce Sales, Scientific Jury Selection (see my review at Amazon.com)

January 1, 2008

Intriguing new book: Psychology of women's violence

The second edition of Anna Motz's Psychology of Female Violence: Crimes Against the Body is now available for download as an ebook. The print version is forthcoming from Taylor & Francis. From the book's description:
What are the causes of violence in women? What can be done to help these women and their victims? Why does society deny the fact of female violence? This book explores the nature and causes of female violence from the perspectives of psychodynamic theory and forensic psychology. This fully updated and expanded second edition explores developments in research and services for violent women. The Psychology of Female Violence will be valuable to trainees and practitioners working in the fields of clinical and forensic psychology, women's studies, sociology, psychiatric nursing, social work, probation, counselling, psychoanalysis, the criminal justice system and criminology. Recent high profile cases of female violence are discussed alongside clinical material and theory.
Topics in the new edition include:
  • The Victoria ClimbiĆ© Inquiry
  • The controversy surrounding Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy
  • Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder in women
  • The impact of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites
  • Clinical issues of working with women who kill
  • Designing therapeutic services for women in secure mental health settings
  • Women who sexually and physically abuse children
  • Infanticide
  • Fabricated and induced illness
  • Self Harm

Was Tatiana the tiger attacked with slingshots?

A news report today adds further support for the theory that the San Francisco Zoo tiger who attacked three men on Christmas Day was responding to extreme provocation.

Citing an unnamed source, today's New York Post reports that the injured men were armed with slingshots and had an empty vodka bottle in their car. This would support the theory that the men were engaging in a drunken display of masculine bravado when the 350-pound Siberian tiger went into hyperdrive, leaping across a moat to attack them. (See my post of Dec. 29.)

NOTE: On Jan. 2, the day after I posted this, ABC News quoted police as flatly denying that the men were carrying slingshots. The Dhaliwal brothers' high-profile attorney, Mark Geragos (of Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson fame), called the slingshot story an urban legend.

Speculation is rife about the circumstances of the mauling that left a 17-year-old boy dead. Neither police nor the surviving brothers, Kulbir and Amritpal Dhaliwal, are talking, and no other witnesses have come forward.

My original post of Dec. 29 is here. I also recommend an interesting commentary by professor of medicine Marc Siegel on the fight-or-flight instinct as it pertains to Tatiana: "The Emotions of Attack."