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Conducting Forensic Assessments

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2893 words Published: 9th May 2017

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This study discusses different aspects of forensic psychology in relation to juvenile suspects by assessing an individual in the case study portrayed in the documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning”. This paper provides the brief descriptions of the following:

  • The case study in the documentary, including a description of the individual and his forensic population.
  • The potential role(s) of a forensic psychologist in relation to the case study.
  • The forensic assessment principles that apply to the case study.
  • Any third party information that may be necessary to collect for the forensic assessment of the case study.
  • Ethical and/or multicultural issues and/or considerations related to the case study.
  • An analysis of how a forensic psychologist might best address each of the ethical and/or multicultural issues and/or considerations that are described.
  • What a forensic psychologist might think important to consider and/or determine when conducting a forensic assessment of the individual in this case study.
  • What the courts might think important to consider and/or determine from a forensic assessment of the individual in this case study.
  • At least two forensic assessment instruments and/or tools that might be used in relation to this case study, with an explanation of why.
  • The elements that would be included in a forensic assessment report based on this case study.
  • Which elements from a forensic assessment report based on this case study would be relevant for testimony, and why.
  • The implications that the assessment may have for the outcome of the case

Murder on a Sunday Morning

This case study is based upon the forensic assessment of the accused individual in the documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning” (2001). The crime scene in the documentary portrays Mr. James Stevens witnessing his wife being shot and murdered by a young black male who was robbing her at the gun point. The assailant committing this crime has been characterized as a six feet tall skinny black male of age in between 20 and 25 years. The police arrested Brenton Butler as a suspect who is a 15 year old black male although he is much shorter and younger than the actual assailant that the police was looking for. Nevertheless, Butler was suspected of the murder as he was the only black found near the crime scene at that time and being identified by the victim’s husband as the assailant who attacked his wife. He was then interrogated in the police station in the absence of his parents and was even denied of getting any legal help. Detective Glover interrogated the young man and attempted to make him confess the crime and pressurized him to locate the murder weapon. The detective took Butler to an area of woods close to the crime scene and hit him once on the face and twice in the stomach as he was unable to extract any information from the suspect. After which, another detective with the name Dwayne Darnell came to work on this case who made Butler sign a pre-written confession that became a prime evidence for the trial.

The case was then picked up by Ann Finnell and Patrick Mc Guinness as public defenders against the state of Florida, who systematically proved the prosecution wrong on account of insufficient evidence produced for the trial. They proved that the police tortured Butler both psychologically and physically to obtain the written confession from him and that Butler had no motive for the crime, no forensic evidence and no murder weapon were found and neither do Butler have any criminal record in the past nor he had any history of risk factors such as poor parenting, poverty, mental disorders, etc., normally observed in criminals (Bartol & Bartol, 2011 & Burkhead, 2006). Hence, the jury set Butler free as he was not found guilty of the crime after just 45 minutes of discussion although Butler had already spent 6 months of imprisonment during the proceedings of the trial. Butler and his family settled for a compensation of 7.75 million dollars when they actually sued for 8.5 million dollars on account of civil rights violations while the lawyer was punished by the District Judge John H, Moore for not pleading the case appropriately (Schoettler & Pinkham, 2002). Later, the real criminal was arrested, trialed and convicted for the crime.

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Although Butler received justice in the end, however, he would have not passed 6 months in prison if some aspects of forensic psychology had been considered earlier in the trial. Forensic psychological assessment would have been done to determine Butler’s competency to stand trial. Moreover, Butler should have been given the instruments of Dr. Grisso to understand, assess and appreciate Miranda Rights so that he would have understood the meaning of ‘waiving his rights’ and possibly would not have made the false confession under pressure (Goldstein, Condie, Kalbeitzer, Osman & Geier, 2003).

Role of a Forensic Psychologists

There are just two aspects of forensic psychology that are applicable to the Butler case, which are: first to assess the ability of the young suspect (Butler) to waive his Miranda rights and the second to determine Butler’s competency to stand trial.

Assessment Principles

The important question is that whether or not to apply different standards to assess the competency of a juvenile? Numerous studies along with this documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning” have deduced that juveniles should better be assessed and trialed on the basis of their maturity level rather than just following the Dusky Standard for their assessment since their cognitive and reasoning abilities have not been fully developed as compared to those of the adults. Nevertheless, this issue is still in debate in the circles of the legal system (Ryba, Cooper & Zapf, 2003, p500). The forensic psychologists should assess the juvenile suspect irrespective of the standards being followed such that his/her level of understanding the legal proceedings and his/her cognitive mental abilities are measured accurately.

I consider that in this case study of the documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning” if Butler was found incompetent to stand trial earlier in the proceedings then this would not have been much in favor of Butler since such a person is usually sent for treatment until he/she is able to stand trial which may even take several years. As, generally, the court proceedings would still hold while the suspected juvenile is treated through an outpatient method in order to gain competency to stand trial. Since Butler was innocent in the first place therefore keeping the trial on hold until he becomes competent to stand trial after treatment would have been a great injustice to him (Viljoen & Roesch, 2008), perhaps the competency analysis was not done in the documentary due to this reason.

Another problematic element of forensic psychology is the issue that who is the client. In general, the person whom the psychologist is treating or assessing is his/her client. Nevertheless, in legal matters as the one portrayed in the documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning”, the psychologist is working in collaboration with the legal team to find out the mental level of the suspect and not for the diagnosis or treatment of the suspect’s problem. Hence, the final report written by the psychologist in this regard could be greatly biased depending upon the legal-team with which he/she is working and the type of the assessment being conducted. This further signifies that if the psychologist is working with the prosecution then he/she would emphasize over the violent behavior of the suspect in his/her assessment report and thereby, would recommend moving the juvenile suspect to the adult court so that the concentration is applied only to the punishment aspects of the law. On the other hand, if the psychologist is working with the defense counsel then he/she would like to keep the juvenile suspect in the juvenile court system so as to assure the provision of proper assistance and treatment for him/her.

Third Party Information

The third party information is also very important for a forensic psychologist although most of the information will be acquired from the individual under assessment. The public defenders in the case of Butler used his mother as a source for determining the personality and habits of her son due to which, the prosecution case was weakened. As for instance, Butler’s mother refuted the statement of Glover (the primary interrogator) that Butler stood up to hug him and said he was glad to see him when he (the detective) entered in to the room, as she reveals that her son is very reserved and normally never hugs strangers. Although this information could have also been acquired from a psychologist however its impact was more when the mother herself presented it in front of the jury (de Lestrade, 2001). This further indicates that often vital information can be acquired from the third party instead of being available from the client. As the mother pointed out that Butler was very quiet and reserved, hence his short replies to the questions allowed the forensic examiner to extract very little information from him to present to the court.

Further, a doctor certified in front of the jury that the wounds on Butler’s body were caused while he was in police custody. Although a forensic psychologist could report this information to the jury as third party information however, in accordance to the 4 Cs of testimony, a psychologist does not have a clinical knowledge about the wounds where as a medical doctor does, therefore the testimony of a medical doctor in this regard would be considered as the stronger evidence. Moreover, a medical doctor could testify that how the wounds were acquired by Butler while a forensic psychologist could not. Thus, the testimony of a medical doctor would pose a better impact on the trial along with ensuring adherence to the 4 Cs of testimony: Clarity, Certainty, Case Specificity and Clinical Knowledge (Kwartner & Boccaccini, 2008).


Since Butler became the victim of racial profiling being the only young black male spotted in the area near to the crime scene, this point can be accounted as the only multicultural issue in this forensic study. Although Butler was younger and shorter than the prime suspect of the case but still the police picked him up for scrutiny. This point could be best utilized by the defense attorney but the forensic psychologist could endorse it, by ensuring that this sort of racial profiling is happening quite commonly across the United States, through various case studies.

Forensic Considerations

According to the juvenile court rules, the juveniles caught for committing violent crimes can be easily transferred to an adult court for prosecution, after which they will be confined in adult prisons if found guilty (Brannen et al., 2006). However, there is no provision for trialing a juvenile directly in to the adult court system. In the case of Butler, he was automatically prosecuted in an adult court without being prosecuted in and referred by the juvenile court. It is ambiguous that whether or not the necessary measures were followed for transferring him to the adult court system.

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Court Considerations

In this case, the court has to take in to account the age of the accused and the outcome of his interrogation. At the age of 15 years, Butler does not possess the cognitive abilities of a mature person. He was also unaware of the interrogation procedures of the police and his rights in this regard. Since Butler got involved in a legal problem for the first time, he was totally unfamiliar with the Miranda rights due to which the police took advantage of him. Moreover, the medical testimony proving that the police physically abused Butler in order to make him sign the pre-written confession which was actually written by the police instead of Butler. The court would have to look in to the details of all the above considerations prior to affirming to Butler’s confession.

Forensic Assessments

In this case study of Butler, the following forensic assessments would be considered to make a strong case against the prosecution counsel of Butler:

  • Butler’s ability to waive Miranda rights.
  • Butler’s direct trial in the adult court system.
  • Butler’s competency to stand the trial.
  • Butler’s psychological evaluation for any deviant behavior or mental problem.

Forensic Elements

The most important element that the forensic psychologist assigned in this case should consider is that the accused is a juvenile and not all analytical methods are designed for juveniles. Moreover, there is considerable ambiguity in the rights that are given to a juvenile in the proceedings of an adult court system. It is assumed that a juvenile being transferred to the adult court has the same rights and rules as those of an adult provided that such a juvenile bears the same cognitive abilities and understanding of the legal system as those possessed by an adult, which is usually negative.

Since the eye witness testimony constitutes a vital evidence in this case, the forensic psychologist would have to prove that how and why testimony of the eye witness (victim’s husband) was inaccurate as Hugo Munsterberg (1908) showed in his book ‘On the Witness Stand’ that the testimony of the eye witness can be often deceiving in the proceedings of the court.

Ability to waive Miranda rights

The Instruments of Dr. Grisso to assess, understand and appreciate Miranda Rights would have been extremely beneficial for Butler’s defense in this case. The forensic psychologist should utilize this assessment in analyzing the ability of a juvenile in understanding and waiving his/her Miranda rights in a legal matter (Oberlander & Goldstein, 2001). This assessment instrument was developed in the 1970s and then amended in the year 2003 to cater the changes made in the legal systems. The most important characteristic of this assessment instrument that is applicable to the Butler’s case is the right of a person arrested to not give answers to the police interrogation until he/she is provided legal assistance of the lawyer by the police (Goldstein, et al., 2003). If this assessment was utilized in the Butler’s case then he would not have been exposed to police torture and never would have agreed to the false confession under duress. In this case, the police mislead Butler by assuring him that they would try to get an attorney for him but never clarified that he had the right to demand for an attorney and remain silent until he has been provided with his legal help.

Forensic Report

Although the law is absolutely clear in the elements to be included in a forensic report presented in the courts however no standards have been set as yet to carry out a competency analysis on juvenile. Various studies have investigated different methods to evaluate competency and those methods have been used extensively in practice which have been found to be most effective and accurate (Christy, Douglas, Otto & Petrila, 2004). Since no standards have been set for assessing competency, hence the studies have observed vast discrepancies in forensic reports. There has been no indication of requesting or completing any forensic reports in the Butler’s case. The proceedings of this case should have included an assessment of Butler’s competency to stand trial and his ability as a juvenile to waive off his Miranda rights.

Implications of the Report

In case of the forensic report being completed and presented to the court in relation to Butler’s ability to waive off his Miranda rights being a juvenile and his competency to stand trial, the court would have taken Butler’s age and unawareness of the legal system in to account before trialing him in the adult court system on charge of a murder. The forensic report would have also enabled the court to assess Butler’s understanding of his Miranda rights and his signing to the false confession under duress and thereby, affirming his innocence in this case.


The Butler’s case properly illustrates that why a forensic psychologist should be included in the proceedings of the court, particularly in those involving a juvenile since the juveniles being immature and unaware require more legal protection and different assessment methods than those applicable to adults. In case of being trialed in the adult system, it should be ensured that the system does not exploit the juvenile on trial. Butler was saved from a severe punishment by the public defense attorneys who managed to point out the loopholes in the prosecution case and the violations made by the police interrogators.


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