In Brief

What questions will a cross-examining attorney ask a psychologist testifying in court? What scientific information can psychological experts present in lawsuits? How should psychologists prepare for court?

Psychologists and attorneys tackled such topics at the Joint National Institute on Psychological and Other Expert Testimony in Civil and Criminal Litigation, co-sponsored by APA and the American Bar Association, Oct. 2-3, in Chicago. The meeting, which offered continuing education credits for psychologists and attorneys, was organized by psychologists Robert Heilbronner, PhD, and I. Bruce Frumkin, PhD, and attorney Roger Adelman.

"There's really little doubt that the use of psychological experts has experienced an unprecedented growth in the past few years," said Heilbronner at the meeting. "Each of our respective disciplines can benefit from what the other has to teach."

Presenters highlighted major court decisions and federal rules that govern whether expert testimony is admissible evidence, including Frye v. United States, a 1923 ruling that scientific evidence must be "generally accepted" by the relevant field; Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, which specified that judges should use four factors, such as whether the method has been subject to peer review, to determine if scientific testimony is admissible; and federal and state rules of evidence.

But because jurisdictions use different rules of admissibility, psychologists need to be aware of the specific legal tests their jurisdictions use for scientific evidence, said presenters. They should also understand how their expert opinions match up with those rules--and discuss them with the attorneys who hire them, said presenter Steven R. Smith, JD, president, dean and professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

His three "Boy Scout suggestions" for psychologists testifying in court:

  • Be prepared. Know the legal and scientific bases of your opinion. Experts should also be familiar with the facts of the case, the ins and outs of the reports they've filed and related research literature, said other presenters.

  • Be your best. Testifying is a serious matter, said Smith, noting that people's lives are often profoundly affected by court decisions based on expert testimony. Be able to define technical terms in simple language and speak concisely, added Jeffrey Cramer, JD, an assistant U.S. attorney.

  • Be trustworthy. Tell the truth and don't exaggerate. Cross-examiners will try to discredit you by looking for inconsistencies in your statements and whether your opinions match up with the research literature, said Cramer. They may question you on the tests you didn't administer or bring up the fact that you're being paid for your time in court, using terms like "hired gun" and "parachuted in for the day." To combat such comments, it's important to appear as an unbiased expert, not an advocate, said panelists.

Other topics covered at the institute included detecting malingering and deception, using neuropsychological evidence in court, how to refute junk science and false or coerced confessions.