August 2011  << Back  

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Psychological Science in the Courtroom: Consensus and Controversy

Galit Askenazi, PhD, ABPP

Neuropsychology and Forensic Psychology Specialty Services, Cleveland, OH, USA

Edited by Jennifer L. Skeem, Kevin S. Douglas, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2009; ISBN: 978-1-60623-251-4; pp 418; $50 (hardback).

Of the numerous books I have read regarding the interface of psychology and the legal system, Psychological Science in the Courtroom stands out as being uniquely informative, well written, cohesive, and of great utility to psychologists. It consistently maintains focus on the scientific approach to mental health issues in the legal arena and thoroughly cites current knowledge and its limitations, error rates, controversies, and areas of required future research. Strengths, weaknesses, myths, and misconceptions are systematically evaluated in each chapter.

The first section starts with the cases of Frye and Daubert to evaluate how much of what we as psychologists know would be admissible in courtroom proceedings. The authors examine in depth the issue of what testimony should be validly included or excluded, and presents data—which are frankly shocking—about the perceptions of judges, attorneys, and jurors on expert evidence and testimony.

The second section deals with intrinsically difficult psycho-legal issues, such as repressed memories, hypnosis, and eyewitness identification, in an easily understood manner. The book never loses focus on the scientific aspect of research in these areas and how legally required standards of evidence acceptance are or are not met. Critical factors, such as error rates and evidence-based techniques, are thoroughly discussed in each chapter.

The third section investigates specific psychological tests and techniques used in forensic assessments. The section on evaluating psychopathy is exceptional and provides the most useful information in this area I have ever seen. It well separates what is a personality construct and what predicts violence. The authors discuss the generalizability of the concept of psychopathy and utility of assessment measures. The section on polygraph use is critical, but all conclusions directly stem from available scientific data.

What is acceptable when conducting forensic evaluations is the focus of the fourth section. Here the reader will find significant scrutiny of prediction claims unsubstantiated by data in areas such as criminal profiling and child custody evaluations. However, there is a substantial gap in this section. The portion reviewing psychological injuries only presents assessment and application of general psychology measures, without any discussion of neuropsychological measures to assess cognitive functioning and potential malingering.

The fifth section, which addresses sentencing based on beliefs of risk and rehabilitation, is critical to what we as psychologists should and should not present based on scientific evidence, and the necessity to avoid bias. Both violence risk assessment and treatment of psychopaths are explored in depth.

The conclusion addresses common ground between scientific knowledge and the law, and states despite the great extent of current scientific knowledge in many areas, the limits of application to individuals always needs to be considered. Areas of future research are recommended in precise ways.

Overall, Psychological Science in the Courtroom is an excellent book that is critical of the forensic psychology field in the most positive way by honestly distinguishing between what is and is not known scientifically and how we should use such knowledge when practicing psychology in forensic contexts. I recommend this book to every forensic psychologist.