Guidelines for Forensic Expert Witnesses
Forensic psychology is uniquely different than the practices of clinical, developmental, and cognitive psychology. Compared to these areas of practice, forensic psychology is a relatively new and emerging field of study.
According to the American Psychological Association, forensic psychologists work in numerous job settings some of which include private practices, government, judicial systems, military, academia, and prisons. With regards to the judicial system, a forensic psychologist might serve in various roles such as that of an expert witness for personal injury cases, jury selection expert, a consultant to attorneys for focus groups, or as a court-ordered competency evaluator for criminal insanity cases. Unlike the other areas of psychology, a forensic psychologist must have a very good understanding of not only psychology, but also the legal rules, principles, and practices. (American Psychological Association)
Below are a few decision making models that are intended for addressing and facilitating challenging and troubling ethical dilemmas specifically related to expert witness testimony. These include: interpreting the situation, reviewing the problem or dilemma, determining the standards of care that apply to the dilemma, generating possible and probable courses of action, considering the likely consequences of each course of action, consulting with a supervisor and/or peers, and selecting an action by weighing competing values given the context. (Tarvydas, 1998).
In addition to these general guidelines, forensic psychologists must also refer to state and federal laws relating to expert witness testimony as these differ from state to state. It is the hope that these guidelines will assist with establishing parameters for maintaining professional conduct and when confronting ethical challenges.
Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
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The primary objective of this principle is to provide treatment to the best of one’s professional ability, with the interests of one’s client, and to do no harm. In this regard, forensic psychologists are expected to maintain competence in their field, protect clients’ privacy in reports or consultations, and to provide opinions and reports based only on information derived from techniques sufficient to substantiate findings. Therefore it is the duty of the forensic psychologist to provide evidence or testimony only in matters for which he/she has relevant and appropriate education, training, and, based upon scientific knowledge.
Another fundamental principle, confidentiality, is the most frequently reported ethical dilemma encountered by members of the APA. While it may seem professionally and ethically inappropriate to disclose confidential information concerning one’s client, psychologists are obligated to adhere to the law when it comes to reducing self -harm to their clients or harming others.
Example of a Potential Research Ethical Dilemma for a Forensic Expert relating to Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
Testifying beyond the scope of propriety
Dr. Joy is giving testimony as to the mental functions of an accused inveterate criminal, and on questioning from the defendant’s attorney, agrees that the individual indeed has recidivistic characteristics, consistent with those manifested by an inveterate criminal. Dr. Joy then gratuitously adds that he believes that the defendant should undergo an amygdalotomy, a controversial psychosurgery procedure that was abused in the past by neurosurgeons and has not been verified by research studies.
Fidelity and Responsibility
Forensic psychologists have a responsibility to themselves and their clients to maintain a high level of competency in order to be credible witnesses in their field of study. This is obtained through licensure, training, supervised experience, continuing education courses and seminars, and professional experience. Forensic psychologists are also encouraged to belong to professional associations so that they may stay current with their professional peers about evolving criteria and ethical conflicts (Fisher, p. 68).
Forensic psychologists that serve as expert witnesses must also be familiar with the rules of evidence regarding case law and expert testimony which varies from state to state (Fisher, p. 75).
Forensic practitioners are prohibited from expressing legal opinion or providing legal advice. While it is necessary for a forensic practitioner to have a full understanding of legal proceedings, rulings, and the court systems, they are not practitioners of law. Their role is to educate and make assessments on forensic issues.
Example of a Potential Research Ethical Dilemma for a Forensic Expert relating to Fidelity and Responsibility
Dr. Solomon has been hired by an organization to conduct research on expert witness testimony. He continues with the study but finds out that his research team may have tampered with medical records and engaging in questionable research practices, but does not have any actual evidence of this matter.
The organization is unaware of these recent findings. Is it Dr. Solomon’s responsibility to inform them of the team’s ethical misconduct?
As part of their trial strategy, lawyers will exhibit evidence and argue in an adversarial manner in order to present the case in a more favorable light for clients. However, forensic experts are expected to address all participants, all data, opposing expert opinions, and rival hypothesis with impartially and respect.
When offering expert opinion which is relied upon by legal authorities, forensic experts must strive for accuracy, impartiality, fairness, and independence. Personal beliefs and biases must not interfere with rules of law.
When commenting on the work product and qualifications of other professionals in the field, forensic practitioners should do so in a fair, respectful, and impartial manner.
Example of a Potential Research Ethical Dilemma for a Forensic Expert relating to Justice
A defendant is sentenced to death after his trial. On appeal by his attorneys, it is claimed that he has insufficient intelligence to understand the nature of his crime and the sentence. Dr. Young, a forensic psychologist, is accordingly asked by the state to evaluate the defendant with respect to this issue.
Dr. Young evaluates the individual, using standard measures of IQ and comprehension, and concludes that he has marginal, yet probable, adequate intellectual ability and cognition to understand the issues involved.
However, Dr. Young, is a strong opponent to capital punishment, and advises the court that the prisoner does not have sufficient cognition to fully understand his situation, essentially sparing him the death penalty.