Author(s): Charles Patrick Ewing & Joseph T. McCann
Ewing, C.P. & McCann, J.T. (2006). Minds on Trial: Great Cases in Law and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Forensic psychologists have long combined the fields of Law and Psychology and as such this book features 20 famous cases that merge the two fields. The book examines the testimony put forth by professionals in the field of psychology, which is then deemed valid (or not) within the legal system. These cases often create precedents for future cases and have determined the legal parameters for psychological illnesses, false memories, public endangerment, and many others issues. While the book examines 20 famous cases, this review will concentrate on two in order to provide insight into the general information presented in the book. According the Ewing and McCann, “the relationship between psychology and the law is about the ways in which the workings of the human mind: like memory, thinking, perception, personal decision making, free will, and other complex psychological phenomena, impact important legal issues.”
On February 4th, 1974 Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California home. Patty was the daughter of William Randolph Hearst, one of the wealthiest men in America who owned a chain of media outlets. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) claimed responsibility and asked Hearst’s parents to donate $70 of food to every poor person in California, and to publish all accounts of this in the media. The Hearst family did as asked.
On April 3rd, 1974 Patty issued a statement indicating that she wanted to stay with the group of her own volition and that she wanted to become a freedom fighter and that she was changing her name to “Tania”. Patty Hearst went on to assist in bank robberies and the shooting and robbery of a sporting goods store as well as serving as a getaway driver in another bank robbery.
On September 18th, 1975 Patty Hearst and other SLA members were arrested. In her defense Hearst claimed that she went along with her captors for fear for her own life. The prosecutors, using tapes of the robberies, claimed that she was a willing participant in the crimes. Court appointed psychologists found Hearst to be sane but “emotionally impaired to a significant degree” and that she suffered from the equivalent of PTSD. The also stated that she was subjected to coercive manipulation by her captors. The debate between the prosecution and defense was whether she committed these acts under duress or of her own will. The prosecution claimed that Hearst became impressed with the goals of her captors and their willingness to die for their beliefs and eventually came to agree and participate in their actions. They also claimed that the psychologists aiding the defense team were serving their own interests in order to gain from the Hearst’s wealth and influence.
The jury convicted Patty Hearst and sentenced her to seven years in prison; President Jimmy Carter famously commuted her sentence after 22 months. Most individuals who are familiar with the case today agree that if not for the dire circumstances in which Hearst found herself, she would not have committed the crimes. President Bill Clinton issued her a full pardon in 2001.
This case addresses the issue of public safety and when a psychiatrist or psychologist must break confidentiality to insure the public safety of others. Generally, the guideline requires that if someone poses a potential risk of harm to themselves or others the psychologist should inform others who can potentially eliminate the risk.
Prosenjit Poddar was born in India and came to the United States to study naval architecture at the University of California Berkeley. He eventually enrolled in folk dancing lessons where he met and fell in love with Tatiana Tarasoff. Tatiana did not reciprocate his feelings, which threw Poddar into a deep depression. Poddar’s friends encouraged him to see a therapist and he admitted in therapy that he planned to kill Tarasoff when she returned from her studies in Brazil. His therapist contacted the clinic’s assistant director and both agreed that Poddar should be involuntarily admitted into the hospital’s psychiatric unit. They called the campus police to take Poddar into custody and informed them that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who could appear rational, but was a danger to others. The police found him to be quite rational and did not detain him. Later, the director of the clinic Dr. Harvey Powelson asked police to return the letter asking to detain Poddar and asked the therapist to destroy his therapy notes containing any contacts with Poddar.
On October 27th, 1969 Poddar went to Tarasoff’s apartment and asked to talk with her, she refused, and he shot her with a pellet gun. She began to run, but he caught her and then stabbed multiple times, killing her. Tarasoff pled not guilty by reason of insanity and the defense found four witnesses who all testified that he was a paranoid schizophrenic and a neurologist who claimed that Poddar had brain abnormalities. The prosecution believed that Poddar had a schizoid personality, but that he was in control of his actions.
The jury found Poddar to be sane and he was convicted of second-degree murder. The judge in the case however, failed to indicate to the jury the specifics of malice which had to be a part of the intent of Poddars’s actions. Because these details were not clearly defined, Poddar’s conviction was overturned. Rather than have a new trial, he was released on the condition that he return to India immediately.
Tarasoff’s parents filed a wrongful death case indicating that their daughter should have been directly warned of the danger that she was facing. The therapists have “a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect a potential victim of another’s conduct”. The court decided that the therapist must provide for the safety of the patient, but also the third person who they know to be threatened by the patient. Some argued that this would actually decrease public safety because if clients knew that therapists had to disclose this information, they may be less likely to seek treatment. This decision is often referred to as the “duty to warn” or “duty to protect”. This decision weighs the interests of patient confidentiality against the public interest of safety.
The cases featured in Minds on Trial address many interesting intersections between the fields of Law and Psychology, the cases themselves are interesting and bring to light many complications with laws that are intended to be straight forward and clear, that become muddled and murky when applied to actual cases. This would be an interesting read for those interested in careers in the field of Law or Forensic Psychology as future cases are sure to use past cases as a precedent for decisions.
Other Related Resources
C-Span Interview with Charles Ewing coauthor of Minds on Trial: Great Cases in Law and Psychology
The homepage of Professor Gary Wells who is a psychology professor at Iowa State University and an expert on eyewitness memory issues which has numerous links to articles and cases in forensic psychology.
FBI website article about the Patty Hearst case
Crime Library article regarding the Prosenjit Poddar case and the duty to warn. Predicting Extreme Fatal Violence
Article summarizing the differences in duty to warn laws across the 50 states.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Antisocial personality disorder
Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS)