The Role of a Forensic Psychiatrist in a Criminal Prosecution

The Role of a Forensic Psychiatrist in a Criminal Prosecution

forensic psychiatrist, simply put, is an expert mental health and focuses on how it intersects with the law. A psychiatrist, unlike a psychologist, is a medical doctor fully capable of prescribing medications and focuses on analysis from the perspective of a medical professional.

Pre-Trial Work

Before a trial begins, the court may order a forensic mental health analysis for a witness, the defendant, or the victim. This is most often conducted by a forensic psychologist, but in some states is completed by a forensic psychiatrist. The important thing to understand about this process is that the relationship in a court ordered analysis is the expert and the court, not the expert and the person they are interviewing. The precise nature of this assessment and the tools used to conduct it may vary based on the circumstances of the case, but should always be conducted with reasonable courtesy and professionalism. The best advice for anyone undergoing this process – be honest.

Trial Work

The principal role during a trial as an expert witness is to serve as the translator for the participants, particularly the jury, judge, and legal teams, to parse complex mental health and legal issues into easier to grasp information that can be absorbed and used to evaluate the circumstances of the case and make decisions based on those facts. Their role here is to interpret and present the mental health information as a medical expert from a neutral position. They are not judges, nor lawyers, and cannot take a biased stance on the information presented.

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Beyond the Trial

Outside of a trial setting, they conduct research, provide analysis, speak, write, and teach on the intersection of law and mental health. They may be called on to provide ongoing mental health treatment to a participant in a criminal proceeding – a victim, a witness, or a suspect, offering a unique understanding of the impact and process of legal procedures on mental health. They are also called upon to provide expertise in civil cases – especially those regarding competency. Many also maintain a clinical practice and see it as a necessary component of maintaining their expertise in the field.

On Payment and Neutrality

As an expert witness, a forensic psychiatrist is a hired professional and paid for their time by one party – either the defense or the prosecution. They are expected to remain neutral and provide their expertise without influence by who is paying them. The information they provide should be presented in such a way as to be relatable and understandable by the intended audience – the judge, jury, and legal teams of the involved parties.

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