Psychology and the law intersect in many ways. In this lesson, we'll look at two important parts of a trial that forensic psychologists participate in: competency hearings and the insanity defense.
Jonathan hears voices. They tell him to do things, and when he doesn't, they keep pestering him. He thinks that if he can just do what the voices tell him, they'll leave him alone. But lately, they've been asking him to do things that he really doesn't want to do, like hurt a girl in his class. He really likes the girl, Sylvia, but if he doesn't hurt her, he's afraid the voices will never go away. He doesn't know what to do.
Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, behaviors, and actions. In this field, psychologists study the causes and treatments of all sorts of psychological disorders.
Jonathan is suffering from a mental disorder that might lead to him hurting someone. But what happens if he does? The legal system and psychology interact in many different ways. Let's look closer at some of the ways that the court system intervenes, including the concepts of competence and the insanity defense.
Forensic psychology is the intersection of psychology and the judicial system. Forensic psychologists may hold a variety of roles within the legal system. One is the evaluation of criminals to determine if they are competent to stand trial.
Let's say for a moment that Jonathan listens to the voices in his head and hurts Sylvia. And let's say that he doesn't try to hide it, and the district attorney has a lot of evidence against him. That should be an easy case to try, right?
Well, not necessarily. In order to prosecute him, someone like Jonathan has to be evaluated by a psychologist to determine whether or not he is competent to stand trial. What does this mean? He has to understand the nature of the charges against him and be able to cooperate with his defense lawyers.
For example, imagine that Jonathan's defense lawyer explained to him what he was being charged with and what might happen if he's found guilty. But no matter how much explaining is done, Jonathan just doesn't understand what's going on. Maybe he's so lost in his own world of voices that he just doesn't understand what's real and what's not anymore. In that case, he might be found incompetent to stand trial.
What does this mean for Jonathan? Well, the law varies from state to state, but many criminals who are incompetent to stand trial are committed to state mental institutions and periodically reevaluated. Sometimes, this reevaluation leads to release from the mental institution, and sometimes it means that they are found competent and tried at that point.
Not being able to tell the difference in reality and hallucinations or delusions is one reason a person may be found psychologically incompetent to stand trial. One other reason that a person may not be competent to stand trial is if he has a severe intellectual disability, which keeps him from functioning at a normal mental level. Other reasons include not being able to read or write and even severe memory loss.
Note that a competency hearing to determine fitness for trial only looks at the patient's current state of mind. Let's say that Jonathan was completely sane when he hurt Sylvia, but soon afterwards, he had a psychological break and wasn't competent to stand trial. He would still be incompetent to stand trial, even though he was functioning normally at the time of the crime.
But what happens if he wasn't functioning normally at the time of the crime? What happens then? Imagine for a minute that Jonathan understands his charges and is able to help his defense lawyer. But at the time of the crime, he didn't know what he was doing. In that case, his defense team might argue that he is not guilty by reason of insanity.
The insanity defense is controversial. The basic gist is this: In order to find a person guilty, the prosecution has to prove that the person committed the crime and that they had a guilty intent. In other words, if a person steals his neighbor's lawn mower because it's exactly like his and he believes it is his, then he cannot be convicted because he did not have the intent to commit a crime.
In the world of mental illness, this means that a person who has a mental illness and was not aware of what he was doing at the time of the crime or was not aware that what he was doing was wrong, he can plead not guilty by reason of insanity. This is the insanity defense.
Again, let's go back to Jonathan. He's competent enough to stand trial, but at the time of the crime, he was hearing voices in his head that lead him to horrific actions. But was he sane enough to understand what he was doing and to understand that what he was doing was wrong?
Maybe or maybe not. In the case of an insanity defense, the accused is evaluated by at least one psychologist. The psychologist's job is to answer those questions. It's not an exact science, which is where the controversy comes in. Some people have undoubtedly played the system and faked being mentally ill. But some people genuinely are mentally ill enough that they are not guilty due to insanity.
One famous and controversial case involving the insanity defense is that of James Wolcott. In 1967, a 15-year-old Wolcott shot and killed his parents and sister. Several psychologists testified that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to a state mental hospital.
In 1974, just seven years after the murders, a jury found that Wolcott was sane and released him from the hospital. Wolcott went on to go to college, earn a PhD, and become a celebrated professor of psychology at a small college in Illinois.
To some, Wolcott's story is one of hope: A man who was severely mentally ill turns his life around and lives a productive life. To others, it is a demonstration that he was never really mentally ill and that he got away with murder. There's no way to know which is true. Because psychological diagnosis is an inexact science, there will always be controversy surrounding the insanity defense.
Forensic psychology looks at the intersection of the law and psychology. There are two important types of evaluation done by forensic psychologists. Determining competency to stand trial deals with the accused's state of mind at the time of the trial, while determining a person's state of mind at the time of the crime is an important part of testifying at a trial involving the insanity defense.
When this video lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Define abnormal psychology and its defense in the law
- Understand the place of forensic psychology within the practice of the law and the science of psychology
- Describe insanity defense and its controversies