What role does forensic psychology play in a sexual assault case?
Those working in the field of forensic psychology can deal with a wide range of case types and personalities throughout their career, such as individuals who have become depressed and anxious from a traumatic incident, acquired a brain injury from domestic violence attack, committed robbery for food to survive, committed murder out of premeditation or emotional rage, or juveniles who are trying to earn the respect of their peers and become involved with the legal system.
However, as awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence has increased in recent times, we thought it is important to examine the critical role that forensic psychology may play in these specific cases.
Forensics vs. Forensic Psychology
First, let’s clear up some any confusion about the difference between forensics, as commonly portrayed in popular media, and forensic psychology. It is important to understand that these are not the same thing.
References to forensics that you may see on T.V. shows usually explore the interaction between science and the detection of crime (such as lab testing), otherwise known as forensic science. However, forensic psychology examines how the principles of psychology interact with the law.
In a sexual assault case, a forensic psychologist will not be gathering or examining physical evidence from a crime scene. Instead, they may be evaluating victims, witnesses, an alleged perpetrator, or playing other roles that we further explore below.
What might a forensic psychologist do in a sexual assault case?
Once an allegation is made, the role of a forensic psychologist in a sexual assault case may vary depending on what is needed or requested of them—and on who is making the request.
A forensic psychologist can be hired to evaluate the alleged victim or the alleged perpetrator. Some areas of the evaluation can entail the following:
- Personality style and coping
- Emotional reactions
- Assessment of fabrication and malingering
- Intellectual testing
- Memory testing
The interviewer should be extremely cautious in their approach and ask open-ended questions as well as be cautious of the suggestibility of the interviewee. One popular way law enforcement officers interview is using the cognitive interviewing technique in order to enhance retrieval of information during the alleged incident without inadvertently implanting information.
Psychologists and counselors might use a purposely open-ended questioning approach so as to make sure that the interviewee is not tainted by the actual interview questions or other information the interviewer presents. It is again very important that the interviewer remains impartial on the case in order to avoid “halo effects” (a cognitive bias whereas an interviewer looks at all interviewees as either all good or bad) or “confirmatory bias” (looking for evidence to confirm one’s own bias in a case).
A forensic psychologist or licensed professional counselor could be hired as a therapist in an effort to address the emotional reaction of being accused or being an alleged victim. The word “alleged” is important to use since there will not have been any decision rendered by the judge. It is still important to remain objective and not tainted by any information.
- Jury consultant
If a case goes to trial, a forensic psychologist or licensed professional counselor could serve as a jury consultant to assist in acquiring an unbiased jury.
In forensic psychology, it is best to remain objective and to not be persuaded to look for jury members who would sway the case one way or another. In the popular television show “Dr. Bull”, the forensic psychologist is hired by one side to profile potential jury members and recommend those that would be better for that one side.
This is not a purely objective approach to the jury selection process because the consultant is profiling the potential community members to yield a jury that would tend to respond to a case in one way or another based on your client’s goal.
- Fact witness
A forensic psychologist or licensed professional counselor could be hired as a fact witness. The fact witness would be pronounced by the court as an expert in the area that needs to be explored and capable of answering important questions.
You can find some examples of these questions below, along with relevant answers provided by TCSPP’s Forensic Psychology Department Chair Dr. Erika Liljedahl, Psy.D, MLS.:
Question: Is it typical for a victim to take a long time to report a sexual assault?
Answer: “The amount of time can depend on several factors, including the situation and people involved. A forensic psychologist or counselor can ask questions in an interview to bring clarity for why an incident is reported months or years later, and one typical question is ‘why now?’ The response can elucidate the reasons or help an interviewer ask more questions. The alleged victim may respond with ‘I was afraid to report’ and ‘I did not want the person to retaliate,’ or the alleged victim may say something like, ‘I don’t know.’ All answers can help an interviewer learn of the person’s reasons for the delay, but please note that it may not be easy for a person to come forward.”
Question: What reasons may a victim not be able to recall the specifics of an incident?
Answer: “This can depend on a variety of factors. There are, again, many variables involved and a victim can typically range from remembering details to having vague or even inaccurate memories. Some victims may be so upset and emotional that they are incapable of remembering key details because of a neuro-biological response that prevents them from doing so. However, a forensic psychologist may also find it more unusual if a victim is able to recall too many details of an alleged incident.”
Question: Is it common for a victim to report a sexual assault to someone other than law enforcement?
Answer: “Clearly a person might report an incident of sexual assault to a trusted friend or family member, or may also confide in a mental health professional. There can be warning signs of a sexual assault victim and some include becoming increasing isolative, depressed or anxious, loss or gain in appetite, abusing substances, falling behind at school or work, or even self-harm thoughts or behaviors.”
The importance of objectivity
It has already been stated many times, but cannot be stressed enough: a forensic psychologist in any role must remain impartial, cannot be tainted by media and/or internet, and should not take one piece of information and expand it out into an opinion.
But how does a forensic psychologist learn to become objective?
In The Chicago School’s forensic psychology program, for example, students are first taught to recognize what their biases are.
“One of the first things that I like to do with new students is bring to their attention that they are not necessarily objective. Students often believe that they’re impartial and open to everything, but it’s important that they know this is probably not true,” Dr. Liljedahl says. “So the first step is to discover what their biases are and then help them either work through them or determine what populations may be inappropriate for them to work with. For example, some people may not be able to objectively work with sexual offenders due to their own personal trauma or background.”
Determining an alleged victim or perpetrator’s credibility
A forensic psychologist cannot rely on observation (i.e. during an alleged victim’s or perpetrators testimony) to determine credibility. There are many people that can present themselves well but are good liars, and others who may be completely honest but may be too upset or nervous when testifying.
Instead, a forensic psychologist would need to conduct a thorough psychological evaluation and review any information relevant to the specific case that is available—but even then the word credibility is not the term a forensic psychologist may use.
“We may be asked to assess for credibility, but what does credibility mean?” Dr. Liljedahl says. “I would say an evaluation would yield information and then a forensic psychologist would determine whether there is enough information to generate an expert opinion.”
Are you interested in learning more about The Chicago School’s forensic psychology programs? Check out our forensic psychology programs page or fill out the form below to request more information.
Blake C. Pinto
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