Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Vacation: Why I Currently Do Not Care About Forensic Psychology

I am camping at Taylor Lake with my family, close to Crested Butte, Colorado. The only time I was able to muster the energy to care about work was when we drove through Buena Vista and passed one of Colorado's largest prisons.

Thanks for reading! --Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday Post: Kids Cannot Be Sentenced to Mandatory Life Without Parole

In a somewhat surprising ruling coming from a conservative Supreme Court, the Court ruled today that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to mandatory life without parole.

Our society tends to view children as more fragile than adults, and there is good reason to do so. There has been a tremendous amount of research over the years demonstrating that the human brain develops slowly and children'd brains work very differently than adult brains. Even kids aged 18 have less of a capacity to think well than adults do.

The Court stated that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (Cruel & Unusual Punishment Clause) to sentence a juvenile to mandatory life without parole. A mandatory sentence implies that a court has no choice but to sentence every juvenile convicted of certain crimes to that harsh punishment, regardless of the child's individual circumstances.

It is still possible to sentence a child to life without parole, but those individual circumstances must be weighed--the age of the child, the developmental level, the quality of the parenting--all of these are important aspects of child development that have a much stronger effect on a juvenile offender than on an adult offender. To ignore those circumstances would be, as the Court ruled, cruel.

The cases the Courts ruled on were Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Jackson v. Hobbs (2012).

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Truth Tellers Beware: People Assume You Are Lying

Is this person a liar?
We are terrible at figuring out if someone is lying to us. Absolutely terrible. Seriously. Terrible.

Here's the catch: We think we are great at it.

This is a major problem for attorneys who are trying to decide whether their clients should testify at trial. People on the jury will use all sorts of problematic strategies to determine the client is lying. Even if the client is telling the truth, jury members will be certain he/she is lying. They will use the client's nonverbal behaviors to assume deception is taking place.

The problem with using nonverbal behaviors to determine the truth from a lie is that nonverbal behaviors do not correlate with lying.

The most popular, and erroneous, belief is that lack of eye contact and averting one's gaze are both signs of lying. Everyone believes that to be true. I have seen people get convicted because they don't make eye contact.

However, research from the last 40 years has consistently shown that lack of eye contact and averting one's gaze has no relationship at all to lying. In fact, the opposite may be true. Many people maintain better eye contact when they are lying.

The same is true of fidgeting--head movements, picking at the hands or face, arm movements, shifting in one's chair--all of these nonverbal behaviors are assumed to predict lying, but they don't.

In addition to being terrible at figuring out whether a person is lying, attorneys also need to worry that jurors will actively seek out nonverbal behaviors that confirm their biases. If a juror thinks the client might be lying, the juror will look for nonverbal behaviors that confirm the predetermined belief that the client is lying. The juror will then ignore all indicators that the client is telling the truth and will selectively remember the behaviors that "prove" he/she is lying.

So if nonverbal behaviors are a bad way to detect lying, what can people do to determine how truthful someone else is? Here are a few things to look for:

1. A lack of spontaneity in the person's recollection of events: If the person cannot readily remember details of a major life event without prompting, it may indicate that the person is trying to make up the story as he/she goes along.

2. Ambivalence in story telling: Comments such as, "I think that it happened that way, but maybe not, I can't exactly remember, yeah, I guess that's what happened," are strongly indicative of deception.

3. Lack of credibility: People who are un-credible are probably liars (for example, someone who is known to have lied in the past is probably going to lie again. Also, a 4 year-old child is probably an un-credible reporter of the truth).

4. Implausible statements: If the person is saying things that could not have possibly happened, he/she is almost definitely lying.

The good news is that when jurors are instructed by the judge or attorneys about how to properly detect deception, they tend to do a much better job of telling truth from fiction.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Field, T., Malphurs, J. E., Yando, R., Bendell, D., Carraway, K., & Cohen, R. (2010). Legal Interviewers Use Children’s Affect and Eye Contact Cues to Assess Credibility of Their Testimony. Early Child Development and Care, 180(3), 397-404.

Hartwig, M. &; Bond, C. F. (2011). Why Do Lie-Catchers Fail? A Lens Model Meta-Analysis of Human Lie Judgments. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 643-659.

Levine, T. R., Asada, J. K., & Park, H. S. (2006). The Lying Chicken and the Gaze Avoidant Egg: Eye Contact, Deception, and Causal Order. Southern Communication Journal, 71(4), 401-411.

Sitton, S. C. & Griffin, S. T. (1981). Detection of Deception From Clients’ Eye Contact Patterns. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28(3), 269-271.

Sporer, S. L. & Schwandt, B. (2007). Moderators of Nonverbal Indicators of Deception: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (13)1, 1-34.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is It Possible to Predict Murder-Suicide?

The answer is No. It is virtually imposible to predict whether someone will commit murder and then kill him/herself. Although the press makes a big deal out of it, murder-suicide is actually quite rare, and the best guess a clinician can make about a client is that it is extremely unlikely he/she will engage in murder-suicide.

From the last 30 years of research, the following so-called warning signs for potential murder-suicide are as follows:

1. Is the potential attacker male? Women almost never engage in murder-suicide.

2. Does the potential attacker have a wife or girlfriend who lives in the same house with the attacker? Murder-suicides almost always happen in the individual's home and involve an opposite sex domestic partner.

3. Does the potential attacker have access to a gun? Almost 100% of murder-suicides are carried out with a firearm.

4. Is the potential attacker middle-aged? Most people who commit murder-suicide are in their thirties.

5. Does the potential attacker have an untreated mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder? Most murder-suicides are carried out by individuals who are depressed and angry.

It is important to keep in mind that an individual can meet all five of the above criteria and never come close to carrying out a murder-suicide. As I mentioned before, it is very rare for someone to take that extreme action. To put it another way, the vast majority of people who commit murder-suicide will meet all five of these criteria, but the vast majority of people who meet all five criteria will not commit murder-suicide.

Interestingly, here are a few characteristics that DO NOT predict murder-suicide:

1. The ethnicity of the potential attacker.

2. Whether or not drugs or alcohol were involved.

3. The employment status of the potential attacker.

4. The day of the week (i.e. was it a weekday or a weekend?).

5. Whether the potential attacker has prior arrests.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Murder-Suicide: Common Characteristics of Scenarios Where Murder Precedes Suicide

Photograph of the Decker Ranch, scene of a
recent murder-suicide in Southern Colorado
On June 8, 2012, authorities found two dead bodies at a ranch close to the Colorado/New Mexico border.  They discovered the body of William Decker hanging in the barn, and soon after, they discovered the body of his nephew, Robert Decker, buried in a shallow grave, one foot sticking out of the ground. Robert showed signs of head trauma, and he had been shot.

The authorities then went to the home of William Decker's sister, Billie, in Durango, where they also found her dead. She had been strangled and also showed signs of head trauma.

The current working theory is that there was a dispute over the ranch property between family members after the matriarch of the family died in April, 2012. At this point, the police are not looking for additional suspects, and they assume William Decker killed his sister and nephew and then hung himself.

Murder. Then suicide. There has been a surprising amount of research regarding this phenomenon over the last 30 years. It takes on different forms, but there are a few patterns that tend to emerge from the scientific literature. In the next several blog posts, I will write about this phenomenon in more detail. In this post, I will outline some of the common patterns that researchers have discovered over the years:

1. By far, men are most likely to commit murder-suicide. It tends to be middle aged men, although there are numerous high profile examples of teenagers killing students at school before turning the gun on themselves.

2. Typically, people will kill people they know as part of a murder-suicide. Usually, family members are the victims.

3. The most common murder-suicide situation is where a man kills his wife or ex-wife, possibly their children, and then himself.

4. Another common situation involves a parent killing his children and then himself. Sometimes, mothers will kill their children in an 'altruistic act,' thus saving the children from the pain of the world.

5. Jealousy and rage is typically involved. A husband is jealous of the estranged wife's new life. Or, a man is enraged because his mother left the ranch to someone else.

6. In rarer occasions, a person will commit mass murder as part of a psychotic episode or in the midst of  cult activities. Then, the person will kill himself. This sometimes happens as a result of workplace stress, as well.

7. There are extremely rare documented cases where an individual commits murder in the hope that he will be executed as a result. This seems like a horribly inefficient (and shockingly expensive to the tax payers) way of committing suicide. What is more common is 'suicide by cop,' where a person will shoot at police officers in the hope that the police will kill him. In some cases, the person unintentionally kills a police officer in the shootout.

Although the police have not yet concluded that what happened at the Decker Ranch was a murder-suicide, it certainly shares many of the characteristics common to such an event. William Decker was a middle aged man who had the motivation to be jealous and angry. He likely felt slighted about his mother's handling of the family ranch, and he was probably still grieving his mother's death. He killed family members and then hung himself.

In the next blog post, I will focus on the risk factors associated with murder-suicide.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday Post: Is the War on Drugs Causing An Unnecessary Crisis of Incarceration?

This is an interesting infographic, created by I do not doubt that all of the statistics they cite are accurate, but I am not so sure that the 'war on drugs' has been a complete failure. For example, this infographic states that many drug-related crimes are for simple possession, a nonviolent offense. But, what we know about drugs is that there is a tremendous amount of violence associated with them, at all levels. The person who is incarcerated for possession of marijuana may not have killed anyone, but a lot of people probably died in Mexico and other places making sure that marijuana gets into the U.S.

In any event, I thought the infographic was interesting enough to share and start a discussion. What are your thoughts?

No Justice For All
Created by:

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The CHESS Method: How Expert Witnesses Can Reduce Bias In Their Testimony

Forensic psychologists should strive to provide opinions that are unbiased and fair. Our job is ultimately one of making sure the higher call of justice is served. That sounds easy enough, and most forensic psychologists think they are offering unbiased information and testimony in every case.

I know firsthand how difficult it can be to actually remain unbiased, though. The pull to help the client, or please the attorney, or win the case is very strong. It is hard to tell attorneys the information I found is going to harm their clients' cases. It is even harder to tell them that the entire basis of their clients' arguments are wrong. I have had to do this with attorneys, and it hurts. I worry that I will never get hired as an expert again, and I end up making significantly less money on the case.

On the other hand, I also worry when my conclusions and opinions mesh with what attorneys want to hear. I constantly ask myself if I have come to valid conclusions that happen to support the clients' arguments or if I am just telling attorneys what they want to hear.

In order to reduce bias and to answer these questions in my mind, I use a decision-making model called the CHESS method. Cheryl Wills, a forensic psychiatrist, first wrote about this method in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2008. It is a five-step process that helps to reduce bias. Here are the steps I use, with a hypothetical example included:

1. Identify a Claim, or a preliminary opinion (e.g. The defendant has delusions and psychotic hallucinations that led him to think he was supposed to rob a bank and shoot all of the bank tellers, which is what the defense attorney wants to use as an argument for the defendant to be found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity).

2. Develop a Hierarchy of supporting evidence (The defendant was actively hallucinating at the time of the crime, all of the police reports say he was "out of his mind," he has a long history of arrests for bizarre behavior, and he has been treated at a mental health clinic for psychosis for years).

3. Examine the evidence for weaknesses, or areas of Exposure (The defendant also has a long history of methamphetamine dependence, and he tested positive for meth use at the time of the crime).

4. Studying and revising the claim and supporting evidence (I examine all of the evidence again, placing an emphasis on the possibility that his meth use played a role in the crime).

5. Synthesize a revised opinion (Based on psychological testing, a thorough review of the evidence, and knowledge of the effects of meth, my new opinion is that the defendant's behavior was due to methamphetamine intoxication and not a psychotic disorder. Drug intoxication cannot be used to plead Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity).

In the hypothetical example provided above, I might have come to the conclusion that the defendant's behavior was caused by meth and not by mental illness on my own. But, it would have been more tempting to selectively examine the evidence for data that only supported my original conclusion, thus helping the attorney's case. By forcing myself to look for weaknesses in my original argument, I was able to reduce my bias and come to a more accurate conclusion. If I had used the CHESS method to examine weaknesses in my argument and I still came to the original conclusion, I would have been much more confident that my opinion was unbiased and I was not just telling the attorney what he/she wanted to hear.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Wills, C. (2008). The CHESS Method of Forensic Opinion Formulation: Striving to Checkmate Bias. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 36, pp. 535-540.

NOTE: the above text highlighted in yellow was quoted verbatim from Wills (2008).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wednesday Update: Two Weird Crimes

Here are links to two odd crimes that occurred over the weekend. I am sure there is some sort of a mental health aspect related to each of them:

1. A woman in North Carolina is accused of "squeezing a man's testicles out of his scrotum." Apparently, there is a crime in North Carolina known as "malicious castration." An interesting tidbit from this story: the woman reportedly pulled down her pants and urinated in the police car after she was arrested.

2. A man in Louisiana was arrested for biting off part of another man's face, while under the influence of "some kind of drug." This is the second in a series of high-profile, creepy, face-chewing incidents of late. I don't think he was naked, but he was reportedly using bath salts, much like the Miami attacker.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

What Must A Court Consider Before Sentencing Someone to Death? Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982)

Once a person has been convicted of a crime, the court proceedings move into the sentencing phase. The judge or a jury must decide the appropriate sentence for the crime, and there are legal parameters that must be followed. For example, a Class 4 Felony in Colorado carries a potential prison sentence of two to six years.

Sentences can then be lengthened based on aggravating factors, such as whether the person has committed an "extraordinary risk" crime or an "aggravated" crime. Sentences can also be lengthened if the person is deemed a "habitual offender." Other aggravating factors might include a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder or psychopathy.

A judge or a jury may be inclined to lean more toward the minimum end of the sentencing range if there are mitigating factors. For example, a person who assaulted someone in a parking lot might get a more lenient sentence if the judge understands that person has a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and was extremely depressed and angry at the time of the assault because he needed to stop taking his medications due to side effect issues. These mitigating factors don't completely excuse the person from wrongdoing, but they help explain to the judge why the person probably deserves a more lenient punishment.

In January of 1982, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision regarding what type of mitigating evidence must be considered prior to sentencing a person to death. The case is Eddings v. Oklahoma.

Mr. Eddings was a 16 year-old "youth, raised without proper guidance, subjected to excessive physical punishment, and emotionally disturbed in general." He ran away from home with several friends and ended up shooting and killing a highway patrol officer. Mr. Eddings was tried as an adult in Oklahoma and convicted of first-degree murder.

The trial court and another lower court both considered Mr. Eddings' age as the only mitigating factor prior to sentencing him to death, thus ignoring his emotional disturbance and violent family background. Mr. Eddings argued ignoring that evidence violated his Eighth Amendment (Cruel and Unusual Punishment) and Fourteenth Amendment (Due Process) Rights.

The Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Eddings' legal argument. They concluded the lower courts made a mistake by not taking into account all potential mitigating evidence, including evidence regarding Mr. Eddings' background and mental health. The Court concluded, "While these [mitigating] circumstances did not suggest an absence of responsibility for the crime, they had to be considered in sentencing."

Because of the Eddings v. Oklahoma ruling, sentencing phases of death penalty cases can be very long, and often forensic psychologists are hired by the defense in an attempt to find mitigating evidence that might lower a sentence from Death to Life in Prison. The Court must consider all of that mitigating evidence prior to making its decision regarding the sentence.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Do Horse Poop and Personal Injury Lawyers Have In Common? Christy Brothers Circus v. Turnage (1928)

Vintage Poster for Christy Brothers Circus circa 1900.
Notice the conspicuous absence of dancing horses.
So, what exactly do horse poop and personal injury lawyers have in common?

You might think this is the start of a joke, but it is not. One of the most important legal precedents in U.S. history has to do with a horse "evacuating its bowels" on a spectator at a circus.

In 1927, the Superior Court in Georgia awarded Ms. Turnage damages due to "mental suffering, embarrassment, and mortification," even though she was not physically injured. Here is what happened: Ms. Turnage was in the front row at the Christy Brothers Circus, watching a dancing horse performance. In the course of the routine, one of the horses backed up to her and "evacuated its bowels onto her lap, in full view of many people, including circus employees, who all laughed at the occurrence."

I have to admit, if I had been at that circus, I would have laughed too. Even if I were the owner of the circus, I don't think I could have stopped myself from laughing at the site of a horse pooping on someone. But, the Randolph Superior Court was convinced that she had experienced mental suffering from the incident and awarded her monetary damages.

What makes this case unique (from a legal perspective, not from a humorous perspective) is that it set a precedent for an untold number of future civil cases. A person does not need to be physically harmed in order to be deemed "harmed" and owed damages. Ms. Turnage was not physically hurt at all in the incident, but the Court thought she was still harmed emotionally. Personal injury attorneys who argue that their clients suffered depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems related to the actions of others have Christy Brothers v. Turnage to thank for their legal arguments.

In 1928, the Appeals Court in Georgia affirmed the decision of the trial court in favor of Ms. Turnage, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Christy Brothers Circus v. Turnage  38 Ga. App. 581; 144 S.E. 680 ; 1928 Ga. App. LEXIS 343


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