By Cindy Atoji Keene
Forensic psychology isn’t nearly as drama-filled as depicted on TV crime shows, said Caleb Newman-Polk, 37, of Psychological Consulting Services in Salem. His work lies at intersection of law and clinical psychology, answering the many complex questions that arise in the legal system: Is a suspect mentally competent to face charges? What custody situation might be best for a child? Does this perpetrator understand that what they are doing is wrong?
As a forensic professional in Massachusetts’ district and superior courts, Newman-Polk is involved in a wide range of court proceedings, ranging from evaluating offenders to presenting evidence in court and advising parole boards. Rather than going to a crime scene and trying to figure out the killer’s motives, as depicted in many fictional thrillers, he is usually trying to objectively form an opinion of the case at hand. “I need to apply relevant legal principles and mental health law as well as psychological principles and my own research and study of data,” said Newman-Polk. He doesn’t act in a therapeutic or “helping” role but rather is on the front lines of forensic evaluation, conducting interviews with the defendant as well as witnesses, police officers, family and friends; reviewing medical, criminal, and work records; and administering psychological tests. “One of the key questions I often need to answer is whether a client is distorting or portraying information inaccurately,” said Newman-Polk.
Q: What is a typical day like for you as a forensic psychologist?
A: I might be typing up a report and returning calls from an attorney; the next day, I could be at a psychiatric office, prison, then lawyer’s office interviewing clients or defendants. Then I might be in court all day as an expert witness. This past Friday I had three cases in two different courthouses – first I was an expert witness at Cambridge District Court and then drove to Malden District Court, and then back to Cambridge.
Q: Is it true that forensic psychologists need to maintain a healthy level of skepticism?
A: A lot of time defendants want to put themselves in the best light possible, and that means lying or exaggerating the truth. When I’m doing a criminal evaluation, it’s also not uncommon for people to feign symptoms of mental illness, especially during the time of the crime. Sometimes I’m very easily able to tell when someone is lying or what we call malingering. They’ll act like a crazy character from a movie. If I ask an unlikely question like, ‘Are you seeing a little green martian next to you?” They’ll say, ‘Oh yes!’ Other people are more sophisticated and subtle.
Q: Have you had to deal with difficult moral issues?
A: Most definitely; this includes crimes that are very difficult to even imagine. I need to ask an individual to talk about horrifying details but it’s still necessary for me to be objective over the course of the evaluation. One example jumps to mind – I had to evaluate a young man who tortured and ultimately killed his dog. As dog lover who owns two dogs, his story really disturbed me. But as I listened to him, it became clear to me that in some twisted way, he really believed that he was caring for these animals. In anyone else’s rational mind, it was cruelty, but he thought he was nursing his dog back to health.
Q: When you take the stand as an expert witness, what sort of approach do you adopt?
A: I learned very early to answer questions as briefly and as straightforwardly as possible. For example, if the prosecuting attorney asks me, ‘Do you think that the client was mentally ill?” I just answer yes or no and leave it at that. Sometimes the prosecuting attorney wants you to start elaborating, but the more you talk, the more things they can potentially pick apart in your testimony. They might also try to get you to become defensive and emotion, but I answer as calmly and neutrally as possible.
Q: How do you deal with the emotional toll that this profession brings?
A: I sort through the legal – and emotional – questions with my colleagues. I also have a wife who was a lawyer and is now a mental health worker at a prison and she’s able to relate to a lot of the work that I do.
Q: In your opinion, have television crime shows affected the judicial process at all?
A: I think these shows may have changed how jury trials work – many juries now seem to expect iron-clad evidence to convict anyone. That’s not how it works but because of these highly-romanticized shows, juries have come to expect simple solutions.