April 28, 2013

Forensic practice: A no-compassion zone?

Murder trial prompts professional dialogue

Do empathy or compassion have a place in a forensic evaluation? Or should an evaluator turn off all feelings in order to remain neutral and unbiased?

That question is at the center of a controversy in the murder trial of Jodi Arias that I blogged about last week, with the prosecutor accusing a defense-retained psychologist of unethical conduct for giving a self-help book to the defendant.

Under heavy-artillery fire, Richard Samuels* denied prosecutor Juan Martinez's accusation of "having feelings for" the defendant, who killed her ex-boyfriend and is claiming self defense. Samuels testified he gave Arias a book because he is a "compassionate person" and thought the book would help her, but that his objectivity was never compromised. The exchange prompted a juror to ask Samuels:  "Do you believe absolutely that it is possible to remain purely unbiased in an evaluation once compassion creeps in?"

Martinez called a rebuttal witness to testify that gift-giving is a boundary violation and unethical. Newly minted psychologist Janeen DeMarte, testifying in court for only the third time, testified that a forensic evaluator should never feel compassion for a defendant, as such feelings compromise integrity (a position she modified under cross-examination).

Given these starkly divergent positions, I was curious what other forensic psychologists think. So, I initiated a conversation with a group of seasoned professionals, publishing two brief video excerpts of the relevant testimony on YouTube (click on the images below to watch the excerpts) to guide the conversation.

View the Richard Samuels excerpt (18 minutes) by clicking on the above image.

View the Janeen DeMarte excerpt (10 minutes) by clicking on the image.

Gift-giving: A bad idea

Contrary to the prosecutor’s insistence, our Code of Ethics does not prohibit gift-giving. Nor do the Forensic Psychology Specialty Guidelines (which are aspirational rather than binding). It's an ethical gray area.** As with much involving ethics, it all depends. But still, the consensus was that giving a book to a defendant is a mistake. Whether or not it affects one's objectivity, it gives the appearance of potential bias. And in forensic psychology, maintaining credibility is essential. "Gift giving," as one colleague put it, "gives the appearance of either a personal or therapeutic relationship with the defendant."

Samuels's error lay in failing to think through his action, and recognize how his blurring of boundaries could damage his credibility and thus undermine his testimony. Ultimately, by discrediting his own work, he potentially caused harm to the very client whom he was attempting to help.

The nature of the book itself further undermined the expert's credibility in this case. As another colleague pointed out, what good is a self-help book, Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life, going to do a woman who is in jail and facing the death penalty for stabbing and shooting someone to death?

On the other hand, although gift-giving is a slippery slope, there are times when only a curmudgeon would not give. For example, if you are conducting a lengthy evaluation and you decide to buy yourself a drink or a snack from the vending machines, do you refuse the subject a soda, for fear it would undermine objectivity or lend an appearance of bias? How rude!

Empathy: It's only human 

The general consensus was that, without some measure of empathy, one cannot hope to understand the subject or the situation. One is left with "an equally problematic perspective that dehumanizes and decontextualizes the evaluation,' in the words of another psychologist.

"There is an orientation toward forensic work that is strikingly cold," noted yet another colleague. "I have seen some highly experienced forensic examiners who use their 'objectivity' with icy precision and thereby fail to establish the kind of rapport necessary to obtain a complete account of the offense or other important information…. The absence of empathy can be just as biasing as too much of it."

Or, as Jerome Miller wrote, in one of my favorite quotes from the forensic trenches, "It takes unusual arrogance to dismiss a fellow human being’s lost journey as irrelevant."

In other words, without empathy, any claim to objectivity is illusory, because there is no true understanding. And that, too, is dangerous. DeMarte's extreme position thus errs in the opposite direction from Samuels', in advocating for forensic psychologists to be automaton-like technocrats.

Indeed, the main danger of empathy as discussed by leaders in our field, such as Gary Melton and colleagues in Psychological Evaluations for the Courts, is not that it biases the evaluator, but that it potentially seduces vulnerable subjects into revealing too much, thus unwittingly increasing their legal jeopardy. For this reason, Daniel Shuman, in a minority position in the field, argues that using clinical techniques to enhance empathy is unethical because this can -- wittingly or unwittingly -- cause harm to evaluatees. 

After all, our training as therapists makes us good at projecting understanding, and at least the illusion of compassion. Our subjects often let down their guard and experience the encounter as therapeutic, even when we clearly inform them that we are not there to help them in any way, and even when we remain vigilant to control our expressions of empathy.

"The best forensic evaluations bring all the clinical skills learned to promote self-disclosure and emotional emitting (empathy, reflective comments, attention to feelings, suspension of moral judgment, etc.)," a colleague commented. "We know how to get people to talk about things that they might otherwise wish to hide from others and themselves. Most defendants feel understood or at least feel they have been heard at the conclusion of an assessment."

Behaviors, not emotions, can be unethical

A third general consensus emerging from our professional dialogue was that feelings themselves are "almost never unethical." Which is fortunate, as we can never know for certain what another person is thinking or feeling. Rather, it is the behavior that follows that can be problematic; we must remain alert to what feelings a subject is evoking in us, lest they lead us astray. Sticking close to the data, and being transparent in our formulations, can keep us from behaving incompetently or problematically in response to our feelings, whether of empathy and compassion or -- at least as problematic -- dislike or revulsion. 

Bottom line: Do not check your empathy at the jailhouse door. You need it in order to do your job. And also to remain human.

Thanks to all of the many eloquent and insightful colleagues who contributed to this conversation.


*Samuels has taken down his website (svpexpertwitness.com), so I am providing a link to an old cached version.  

**Psychology ethicist Ofer Zur has written more on gift-giving in psychotherapy, with links to the gift-giving provisions of various professional ethics codes.

1 comment:

Jeffrey C. Singer, PhD. said...


Well done piece!