August 28, 2011

Dangerous People: An international discourse

Dangerous People marks an important moment in risk discourse. Leading scholars from around the Western world join together to discuss the problematic science, ethics and morality underlying contemporary approaches to populations deemed high risk. These include not only sex offenders (the focus of this week's New York Times op-ed) but also suspected terrorists, illegal immigrants, violent youth, and the mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, contradictions over risk prediction play out even within the pages of this international and interdisciplinary work. Consider these offerings:
  • Forensic psychologist David Cooke and statistician Christine Michie of Scotland issue their strongest warning yet about the fraud being perpetrated by proponents of “actuarial” risk prediction, whose illusion of scientific certainty camouflages predictions that are highly inaccurate and misleading:
At the heart of the matter is the fact that simple linear models cannot explain complex behavior…. Individuals are violent for different reasons: any one individual may be violent for different reasons on different occasions. This inherent complexity dooms simple-minded statistical prediction.... The only way to deal with this complexity is to think psychologically, not statistically.
  • Lorraine Johnstone, another Scot, warns that the actuarials' inaccuracies are dangerously magnified with juvenile offenders, who present a "moving target" because they are still in the process of developing.
  • Yet, on the other side of the fence, law professor Christopher Slobogin of the USA continues in his vociferous campaign for preventive detention of a litany of groups -- including the mentally ill, enemy combatants, violent juveniles and persons who spread communicable diseases -- based on these very same faulty statistical methods.

Meanwhile, legal scholars Eric Janus and John La Fond continue to shine a spotlight on the United States' costly experiment with civil detention of sex offenders.

Janus's intriguing theory is that the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws are a tool of conservative ideologues to roll back feminist gains in the struggle against sexual violence and gender inequality. He advocates for a return to an empirically guided, public-health approach as the sanest way to combat sexual violence while also safeguarding tax dollars from waste.

"Predictably," agrees La Fond, "the American SVP experiment has been an abysmal and costly failure. Other countries should learn from our terrible mistakes."

Overviews of practices in other Western nations -- including Australia, England and Canada -- suggest that despite this warning, various U.S.-style detention schemes based on remote future risks are gaining traction internationally.

Several chapters in the volume, however, focus on a somewhat different model out of Scotland, the Order for Lifelong Restriction (OLR). This order, rendered at the time of initial sentencing, involves the imposition of an indeterminate sentence to be followed by lifelong supervision. To maximize consistency, risk assessors are accredited by a special Risk Management Authority. Although Scotland abides by the European Convention on Human Rights, which contains a guarantee against arbitrary detention, concerns have been raised about lengthy detention and lifelong sentences for juveniles. Additionally, as the volume editors point out, "it is too early to say whether the Scottish system has been successful in reducing violent and sexual recidivism."

On a somewhat different note, Jennifer Skeem, Jillian Peterson and Eric Silver challenge the widespread assumption that mental illness is a direct cause of criminality in mentally ill offenders. Rather, they say, many mentally ill people may engage in criminal behavior because they are poor, and therefore exposed to contextual risk factors for crime. We should stop regarding mental illness as a master status, they argue, in favor of a more nuanced approach to mentally ill offenders.

Many of the chapters in this timely collection -- edited by Australian legal scholars Bernadette McSherry and Patrick Keyzer -- will no doubt prove prophetic. The current state of fear-based hysteria, like all social movements, will wane in time. Politicians and the public will realize how costly and ineffective are many of the currently cherished practices and will reverse course. As the editors conclude:
What is clear from many of the chapters in this book is that schemes for imprisoning or detaining people for what they might do are costly, likely to contravene international human rights obligations, and have not proven to be effective in reducing crime, particularly sex offences. Detaining more and more people gives rise to the risk that detention regimes will collapse under the weight of numbers.
Yet in the short term, those who most need to hear this collective discourse -- including politicians, judges, prison officials, and even our very own misguided forensic practitioners -- are not listening. Isolated within a like-minded community, they are too busy searching for the magic potion that will make the world safe and appease a frightened public.

My Amazon review is HERE. If you appreciate this review, please go to Amazon and click "Yes" (this review was helpful). 

August 25, 2011

Trailblazing change in eyewitness ID rules

NJ ruling may reduce wrongful convictions; 
other jurisdictions likely to follow suit

As today's New York Times reports:
The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “"troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications," issued sweeping new rules on Wednesday making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases.

The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness's identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification. 

When such disputed evidence is admitted, the court said, the judge must give detailed explanations to jurors, even in the middle of a trial, on influences that could heighten the risk of misidentification. In the past, judges held hearings on such matters, but they were far more limited. 

The decision applies only in New Jersey, but is likely to have considerable impact nationally. The state's highest court has long been considered a trailblazer in criminal law, and New Jersey has already been a leader in establishing guidelines on how judges should handle such testimony.
Stuart J. Rabner, the court’s chief justice, wrote in a unanimous 134-page decision that the test for reliability of eyewitness testimony, as set out by the United States Supreme Court 34 years ago, should be revised.

The new rules come at a time of increased scrutiny of the eyewitness identification issue among lawyers, law enforcement officers and the scientific community. The opinion noted that task forces have been formed to recommend or put into effect new procedures to improve reliability. 

The State Supreme Court's ruling was seen as significant because it was based in part on an exhaustive study of the scientific research on eyewitness identification, led by a special master, a retired judge, who held hearings and led a review of the literature on the issue. The special master, Geoffrey Gaulkin, estimated that more than 2,000 studies related to the subject had been published since the Supreme Court’s original 1977 decision, the court noted. 

"Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications," Chief Justice Rabner wrote. "From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. 

"Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."

The decision listed more than a dozen factors that judges should consider in evaluating the reliability of a witness’s identification, including whether a weapon was visible during a crime of short duration, the amount of time the witness had to observe the event, how close the witness was to the suspect, whether the witness was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race and the length of time that had elapsed between the crime and the identification.
The Times report continues HERE.
Hat tip: Jane

August 24, 2011

Steffan's Alerts #7: Neuromaging, juveniles, and perceptions of injustice

Click on a title to read the article abstract; click on a highlighted author's name to request the full article.

Perceptions of wrongful convictions by criminal justice personnel

In a new issue of Crime and Delinquency, Brad Smith and colleagues surveyed attitudes of criminal justice participants in Michigan. According to their findings, defense attorneys perceived that wrongful convictions occur more frequently than did police, prosecutors, and judges. Of the professionals surveyed, only defense attorneys viewed this concern as warranting reforms in the justice system.

In another article in Crime and Delinquency, Kristin Johnson and coauthors indicate that incorporating graduated sanctions into predictions of recidivism diminishes the predictive utility of waiver to adult court. Their results draw attention to the role of graduated sanctions and treatment programming for juvenile offenders.

N.J. Schweitzer and colleagues presented neuroscience-based testimony and neuroimagery to jury-eligible participants in mock court experiments. As reported in a new issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law, participants rendered opinions on criminal culpability and sentencing. Neuroimagery, the authors reported, affected jurors' judgments no more than verbal testimony based on neuroscience.

Also in Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law, Ashley Batastini and colleagues report that the Act’s classification system failed to predict sexual or nonsexual reoffending among a small sample of juveniles who were followed over a two-year period. In addition to their exploratory study, they discuss key concerns in the application of the Act to juveniles.

Steffan's alerts are brought to you by Jarrod Steffan, Ph.D., a forensic and clinical psychologist based in Wichita, Kansas. For more information about Dr. Steffan, please visit his website.

August 22, 2011

New York Times op-ed: "The last pariahs"

The chorus of dissent has been getting louder for a while now, but an anthropologist's cogent op-ed in the New York Times may increase mainstream attention to the problem of overly broad sex offender laws. The op-ed by Roger Lancaster is getting a lot of play on professional listservs. In case you missed it here's the conclusion:
Digital scarlet letters, electronic tethering and practices of banishment have relegated a growing number of people to the logic of "social death," a term introduced by the sociologist Orlando Patterson, in the context of slavery, to describe permanent dishonor and exclusion from the wider moral community. The creation of a pariah class of unemployable, uprooted criminal outcasts has drawn attention from human rights activists; even The Economist has decried our sex offender laws as harsh and ineffective.
This should worry us, in part because the techniques used for marking, shaming and controlling sex offenders have come to serve as models for laws and practices in other domains. Several states currently publish online listings of methamphetamine offenders, and other states are considering public registries for assorted crimes. Mimicking Megan’s Law, Florida maintains a Web site that gives the personal details (including photo, name, age, address, offenses and periods of incarceration) of all prisoners released from custody. Some other states post similar public listings of paroled or recently released ex-convicts. It goes without saying that such procedures cut against rehabilitation and reintegration.
Our sex offender laws are expansive, costly and ineffective -- guided by panic, not reason. It is time to change the conversation: to promote child welfare based on sound data rather than statistically anomalous horror stories, and in some cases to revisit outdated laws that do little to protect children. Little will have been gained if we trade a bloated prison system for sprawling forms of electronic surveillance that offload the costs of imprisonment onto offenders, their families and their communities.

The author, Roger N. Lancaster, is a professor of anthropology and director of the cultural studies program at George Mason University. He is the author of a new book from UC Press, Sex Panic and the Punitive State.

The full article is online HERE.

August 21, 2011

Collateral consequences of juvenile conviction

By the age of 17, Terence Hallinan had had several scrapes with the law, including a conviction for helping beat up three Coast Guardsmen in order to steal a case of beer. Yet he was able to put delinquency behind him, and become a successful attorney who served two terms as district attorney of San Francisco.

Such redemption stories were not so unusual back in his day. But today's world is much less forgiving of youthful indiscretions. A kid who gets into any type of legal trouble has a much harder time overcoming the stigma and going on to lead a productive life.

An astonishing two million juveniles are arrested each year in the United States. For many, their first priority is getting out of custody. They may be willing to plead guilty to a seemingly trivial crime, in order to accomplish this short-term goal. Little do they realize that pleading guilty to a crime may have long-lasting collateral consequences far worse than the initial punishment itself.

In an excellent overview of the juvenile justice system in the current issue of The Champion (published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers), Dr. Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project, outlines some of these drastic consequences:

Zero Tolerance and Other School Push-out Policies

There is a public perception that African American and Latino students are quitting school in droves. But as explained on an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week, many of these students are actually the victims of  PUSH-OUT policies disproportionately targeting students of color. Zero Tolerance policies spearheaded by the federal government are forcing some youngsters out of school even if an arrest does not lead to a conviction.

Employment Barriers

Contrary to what many people believe, children processed through the juvenile  justice system do not automatically have their records destroyed (expunged) when they turn 18. Neither do juveniles transferred to the adult system. Having a criminal record creates sometimes insurmountable barriers to leading a successful life, by limiting options for housing, education and employment.

Eviction and Homelessness

Due to a law passed in 1996, under the Clinton administration, a juvenile conviction can lead to the eviction of an entire family from low-income housing. Youth re-entering their communities from out-of-home placement also struggle to achieve housing stability. This destabilization, naturally, increases risk for reoffending -- and the cycle continues.

Placement on a Sex Offender Registry

Despite their demonstrated lack of efficacy, and even their harmful effects, juvenile sex offender registries are gaining in popularity. In some states, children as young as nine are being placed on registries for childish misconduct or even consensual relations with other children. Ironically, children are the very people the laws were intended to protect, yet they are being disproportionately harmed by placement on registries.
After individuals have been added to the registry, they face strict limitations on where they can live, attend school, and work. Anytime registrants change residency they must notify the authorities and update their registration; failure to do so promptly can and frequently does result in incarceration…. Despite the law’s intent to make children and the community safer, it does the opposite. Young people face social stigma, branding as predators, housing bans, and exclusion from schools as a result of placement on the registry.
Dr. Nellis concludes with a series of recommendations to reduce the negative impact of collateral sanctions for juveniles, including:
  • Reverse counterproductive school-based policies such as "zero tolerance" that disengage youth from school.
  • Ensure expungement for juvenile records.
  • Prohibit inclusion of juvenile records on national and state offender registries.
  • Restrict non-relevant conviction questions from employment applications.
  • Revise and expand reentry services and supports for youth. 
The full article, Addressing Collateral Consequences of Convictions for Young Offenders, can be downloaded HERE.

Hat tip: Bruce

August 18, 2011

At long last: New forensic specialty guidelines approved

After a 9-year revision process, the American Psychological Association has finally approved new Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. The Guidelines will replace those established in 1991.

The Guidelines are intended for use not only by forensic psychologists, but by any psychologist when engaged in the practice of forensic psychology. Forensic psychology is defined as the application of any specialized psychological knowledge to a legal context, to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters. The Guidelines are also meant to provide guidance on professional conduct to the legal system, and other organizations and professions.

Guidelines differ from standards, such as those in the APA’s Ethics Code, in that they are aspirational rather than mandatory. They are intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and facilitate a high level of practice by psychologists, rather than being intended to serve as a basis for disciplinary action or civil or criminal liability.

The revision committee, chaired by Randy Otto, included representatives of the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the APA) and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. 

The Guidelines will be published shortly in the American Psychologist journal. In the meantime, a draft version is available HERE. I encourage all of you to read and learn its contents. Much of it will sound familiar to those with a working knowledge of the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Although the Guidelines dance around some of the major controversies in our field, there is still plenty to be happy about. By way of whetting your appetite (hopefully), here is a random smattering:
    2.05 Knowledge of the Scientific Foundation for Opinions and Testimony: Forensic practitioners seek to provide opinions and testimony that are sufficiently based upon adequate scientific foundation, and reliable and valid principles and methods that have been applied appropriately to the facts of the case. When providing opinions and testimony that are based on novel or emerging principles and methods, forensic practitioners seek to make known the status and limitations of these principles and methods.
    2.08 Appreciation of Individual and Group Differences: Forensic practitioners strive to understand how factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, socioeconomic status, or other relevant individual and cultural differences may affect and be related to the basis for people’s contact and involvement with the legal system.
    6.03 Communication with Forensic Examinee: Forensic practitioners inform examinees about the nature and purpose of the examination, … including potential consequences of participation or non-participation, if known.
    10.01 Focus on Legally Relevant Factors: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to consider the problems that may arise by using a clinical diagnosis in some forensic contexts, and consider and qualify their opinions and testimony appropriately.
    11.04 Comprehensive and Accurate Presentation of Opinions in Reports and Testimony: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to limit discussion of background information that does not bear directly upon the legal purpose of the examination or consultation. Forensic practitioners avoid offering information that is irrelevant and that does not provide a substantial basis of support for their opinions, except when required by law.
Leonard Rubenstein, a senior scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Public Health of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, writes in a Huffington Post column that the new Guidelines will prevent psychologists from participating in abusive government interrogations as they did at Guantanamo. I think that's a stretch. These guidelines are not enforceable. And, like all such professional guidelines, they will be subject to diverse interpretations.

August 15, 2011

Pretrial civil detention of sex offenders unlawful, judge rules

A New York law mandating that sex offenders be confined while awaiting civil commitment trials is unconstitutional, a judge has ruled. But the ruling may not make much difference to most sex offenders whom the state wants to civilly detain, because they are waiving away their rights to a trial.

Supreme Court Justice Colleen Duffy ruled that New York's 2007 Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act is unconstitutional because it does not allow for any less restrictive remedy such as supervised release. Under the law, if a court finds probable cause that a convicted sex offender remains a danger, the individual must be confined until a civil trial, which can take a year or more.

Ironically, if the sex offender is ultimately found to suffer from a "mental abnormality" that renders him potentially dangerous to the public, the court then has the option of ordering intensive community supervision rather than involuntarily confinement in a mental institution.

In the case at hand, the judge noted that the state's Office of Mental Health had already determined that "Enrique T." would be a good candidate for strict, outpatient supervision rather than confinement. She ordered the immediate release of the detainee:
"Respondent is faced with a Morton's Fork -- he must either choose to enforce his right to a jury trial and continue to be detained for an unknown period of time in a psychiatric facility awaiting trial on this matter or surrender his right to trial and consent to a finding of mental abnormality so that he may be immediately released back to the community under [strict and intensive supervision and treatment]. Due process cannot countenance a statute that mandates such a choice."
Her decision follows a federal court decision earlier this year that came to the same conclusion, according to a report by John Caher in the New York Law Journal.

Sex offenders choosing not to fight commitment 

Unless these rulings result in complete scrapping of the state's civil commitment scheme, which is unlikely, it is unclear how many sex offenders whom the state seeks to detain will end up benefiting. For reasons that experts call "inexplicable," the majority of offenders are waiving their right to a jury trial, according to a separate report in the New York Law Journal. Reports John Caher:
Shortly after the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act took effect in April 2007, authorities detected an unexpected and inexplicable phenomenon: Sex offenders targeted for civil confinement after serving their prison sentences were overwhelmingly waiving their right to a jury trial and consenting to confinement. Nearly 92 percent, 33 of 36, of the sex offenders civilly confined during the first year of the law's enactment had agreed to placement in a mental institution following release from prison. And while those numbers have tapered off in the last three years, a large portion of the sex offenders targeted for civil management continue to forego their right to a trial and consent to confinement, even though the most serious consequence of going to trial is confinement….
No one is sure why sex offenders are consenting to confinement and giving up their liberty when … they seemingly have nothing to lose. At trial after they have served a criminal sentence, the state has to prove by the high standard of clear and convincing evidence that the respondent suffers from a "mental abnormality" that predisposes him or her to commit sex crimes. A unanimous verdict is required, and if a unanimous verdict is not reached, the offender will likely go free since most have served the maximum sentence and are not on parole.
The success rate when offenders go to trial is fairly high, about 15 percent overall and more than 20 percent when they opt for a jury rather than a bench trial.
Theories offered by an assortment of experts and state officials to explain this unexpected trend include:
  • Sex offenders believe that confinement is inevitable so choose to avoid the added humiliation and angst of trial.
  • Sex offenders know they are dangerous and need help in order to not reoffend.
  • Some offenders cannot find any doctor willing to testify on their behalf. 
  • Some offenders are so marginalized and despised that they have no options for employment or housing in the community.
"A great deal of these folks have no social safety net," said defense attorney Thomas Callaghan. "Many of them are estranged from their families. Very few are married. They realize they can fight, but they really have no place to go."

Lesley M. DeLia, another legal services attorney, echoed this observation. She said some clients were initially eager to go to court, but balked as their trial date loomed closer:
"They know it is not a friendly world out there if they get out. They are scared about what life will be like ... and some of them just don't want to deal with it. There is no housing for them. They can't get jobs. Others are just so institutionalized they are afraid to go. We did have one fellow who said he knows he is not ready and does not want to get out and do it again."

August 12, 2011

"Kids-for-cash" judge gets 28-year prison term

Mother of a suicide victim confronts crooked judge
In what may be the longest federal prison sentence ever given in a U.S. political corruption case, a juvenile judge who earned millions of dollars by sending kids to private jails has received a 28-year sentence. A second judge, Michael Conahan, has not yet been sentenced.

As I blogged about in 2009 ("Evil lurked in Luzerne County"), Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciaverella Jr. got kickbacks for sending children to the private lock-up. He even shut down the public juvenile hall so all minors would have to go to the new detention center. He sold children down the river for crimes as minor as writing a prank note or possessing drug paraphernalia.

Investigation of the so-called "kids for cash" scheme led to 4,000 juvenile convictions being overturned. Although 28 years sounds like a long time, if you do the math it's less than three days per juvenile case.

August 10, 2011

Gay panic defense: Slain boy accused of provocation

The closely watched murder trial of Brandon McInerney took an unfortunate turn this week, as a self-appointed expert testified that 15-year-old Larry King contributed to his own demise by flirting with his killer and by wearing makeup and women’s clothes, thereby disrupting the middle school where he was shot to death.

The witness, family therapist Stephen Irshay, said he contacted McInerney’s defense team to offer his assistance after reading about the case in the newspaper. He said he got involved because he didn't think the defendant would have shot King without provocation.

The nature of Irshay’s expertise is not clear from the trial coverage in the Ventura County Star. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) who was just appointed as assistant director of an MFT program at an online school, Touro University Worldwide. Expert witnesses must have special knowledge or experience to offer -- based on their education, training or experience -- that is beyond the realm of common knowledge.

The use of the gay panic defense is no big surprise, because the case is no whodunit. In front of 25 to 30 eyewitnesses, McInerney shot King twice in the back of the head during a first-period class on Feb. 12, 2008. The day before, he had told several people of his plan, acquired a gun and loaded it.

Prosecutors allege that the killing was a hate crime, and that white supremacist ieology played a role. McInerney's attorneys deny this. Rather, they say McInerney -- who had just turned 14 -- was pushed to the emotional breaking point by King's sexual harassment of him.

“This is a very troubled young man pushed to the edge," defense attorney Scott Wippert told the jury during his opening statement. "He was pushed there by a young man who repeatedly targeted him with unwanted sexual advances."

Despite his youth, McInerney is being tried as an adult. He faces 51 years to life in prison if convicted. He turned down a plea bargain that would have netted him a 25-to-life sentence. For a teenager, I'm sure, either option sounds like an equal eternity.

Ironically, his prosecution as an adult came in spite of a lobbying campaign by a coalition of 27 sexual minority groups. "We call on prosecutors not to compound this tragedy with another wrong,” wrote the coalition. "We support the principles underlying our juvenile justice system that treat children differently than adults and provide greater hope and opportunity for rehabilitation." The letter cites research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that children tried as adults are more likely to commit another crime than those tried as juveniles.

Does flirtation justify execution?

The gay panic defense plays on an antiquated cultural belief that a heterosexual male is justified in using violence to defend himself from flirtation by a gay man. In my own research with antigay hate crime perpetrators, I found that many noncriminal young men believed they had a right to physically assault gay men whom they perceived as flirting with them.

However, as some of the young women pointed out during my focus groups on antigay violence back in the mid-1990s, this logic is never used to justify a girl or woman violently attacking a flirtatious man.

In my research, I conceptualized antigay violence as existing on a continuum. At one end are verbal taunts that, sadly, remain socially acceptable among many adolescents. At the other end are severe acts of violence. These tend to be committed not necessarily by those with the most hostile attitudes toward gay people but, rather, by those with the most severe histories of violence or abuse.

McInerney's case fits this model. The defendant was raised in a chaotic and violent household and subjected to physical and sexual abuse. His father, now deceased, used to beat him for fun, defense attorney Wippert told the jury. The father shot McInerney’s mother, then married her and put bullets in her Christmas stocking as a joke.

According to reports back in 2008, McInerney was one among many students at the Southern California middle school who routinely teased and taunted King.

Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act

The gay panic defense is especially effective in cases where the victim was transgender, due to widespread societal revulsion against gender nonconformity. Use of the defense by the killers of Gwen Aurajo, a transgender teen, led to a backlash in California in the mid-2000s. The state passed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. This law allows for a special instruction to jurors, reminding them not to allow bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity to affect their deliberations. The prosecutor in the McInerney case, Maeve Fox, said she will ask that this instruction be read to the jury.

The jury instruction is brilliant. Rather than seeking to ban the gay panic defense outright, a strategy that might be unconstitutional and would only serve to drive it underground, it helps to shine a spotlight on the underlying biases that the defense promotes.

This strategy is more effective than an outright ban, says legal scholar Cynthia Lee in a lengthy and well-reasoned 2009 treatise in the UC Davis Law Review.
Suppression of gay panic claims, like suppression of bad speech, will not eliminate the underlying stereotypes and assumptions that make such claims persuasive. Open discussion and debate is a better way to combat those assumptions.

The law can and should play a role in mediating th[e] cultural dispute [over the status of homosexuality] – not by dictating what jurors can and cannot consider, but by making sure jurors are cognitively aware of what exactly is at stake when a gay person is the victim of fatal violence, and the person who killed him claims he did so in response to an unwanted sexual advance.
We won't have to wait long to hear whether the defense will help young McInerney or, more likely, backfire. The case is expected to go to the jury in about two weeks.

Related blog posts:
The Ventura County Star has detailed trial coverage and a timeline of the drawn-out legal machinations.

Hat tip: John L.

August 5, 2011

Forensic conference in idyllic Queensland setting

Hell's Gate, Noosa coastline (Photo credit: Kathleen)
For the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people of southern Queensland, the Noosa area was a mecca and gathering place. Being here, I can certainly see why. The site of Australia’s Forensic Psychology National Conference is an idyllic tropical rain forest alongside a gorgeous coastline.

Even aside from the spectacular locale, the conference so far has been rewarding beyond my wildest expectations. Conference organizers and delegates alike have been overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. They strike me as a serious and thoughtful bunch, communicating a solid commitment to ethical professional practice. Both my keynote -- on the subterranean tensions between technocratic and humanistic visions for our field -- and my all-day training workshop on forensic diagnosis were very well received. 

The vast continent of Australia has only 331 psychologists who are registered with the national government as forensic specialists (under the nationalization scheme that just went into effect), and it seems that most of them are here. Also in attendance are several other Americans invited to give keynote talks and all-day training workshops, including forensic guru Tom Grisso, Les Morey (the developer of the Personality Assessment Inventory) and John Edens, a prominent forensic psychologist from Texas A&M.

Blogger with Paul Wilson and conference chair Gavan Palk

A highlight for me was to get a chance to meet Paul Wilson, an internationally renowned criminologist and human rights activist. Paul (here, we all go by first names and forego the hierarchical ribbons and badges sported by speakers and officers at the typical psychological conference in the USA) is a prolific scholar and practitioner. He has been involved in many high-profile forensic cases, including on the effects of solitary confinement and of the forced removal of indigenous Australians from their ancestral homes. His latest book is Erasing Iraq: The Human Cost of Carnage, which -- as the title implies -- details the cost in human suffering of the war.

Paul's keynote focused on the role of forensic psychologists in miscarriage of justice cases. He has significant personal experience in this area, including involvement in Australia’s most infamous case of wrongful conviction, the so-called “Dingo Case" (made into a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep). That was the case in which Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder after her infant daughter disappeared while the family was camping at the famous Ayer’s Rock. It wasn’t until six years later that the baby’s clothing was found in a nearby dingo lair, proving that the mother was telling the truth when she said she saw a dingo carry off her baby.

Blogger with a new friend
It hasn’t been all work for me here in Queensland. I took the opportunity to see a bit of the Sunshine State, visiting first Cairns in tropical north Queensland and then Brisbane, the state’s biggest city. In Cairns, we journeyed out to the Great Barrier Reef for a little snorkeling, and also took in the local wildlife. We were lucky enough to spy the reclusive platypus in a creek in the Atherton Tablelands, as well as the much more abundant and visible kangaroos.

Further south, Queensland’s major city of Brisbane looks to have recovered quite nicely from the catastrophic flooding last January. Just goes to show what's possible in a country with a more rational social policy and a decent economy.

Brisbane is an attractive, up-and-coming city with lots of cool neighborhoods. As soon as we arrived, we were lucky enough to stumble across a vibrant organic food fair. We got to nibble and sip oodles of lovely locally produced treats -- fresh produce, dairy products, meats, sauces and wines.

Swimming enclosure, St. Helena Prison
While in Brisbane, we also toured an old prison on St. Helena Island in the Moreton Bay. It reminded me a bit of McNeil Island in Washington, where I worked for a spell. Operational from the 1860s to the 1930s, St. Helena went through several phases. Sometimes, it housed the Queensland prison system’s troublemakers and the criminally insane. At other times, it was a model prison farm reserved for well-behaved prisoners. At the end, it held aged and infirm convicts. To discourage escape during the harsh old days, prison warders attracted sharks by dumping cow offal along the beaches. Prisoners who wanted to swim after a day of back-breaking labor in the fields, sugar mill or factory could do so only in a small offshore area enclosed by long poles. (See photo.) But during our visit to the ruins, the fearsome predators were long gone and the setting was serene and idyllic. Just us, the guide who ferried us across on a small boat, and a few wallabies, shorebirds, and grazing cattle belonging to the national park service.

For me, Australia has been well worth the long airplane ride to get here; I hope to come back again to see Sydney, Melbourne, and Western Australia and to visit with some of my newfound colleagues in Australia's wonderful community of forensic psychologists.