The death penalty is one of the most polarizing topics of discussion regardless of which opinion is held. Since January 1, 2019, there have been five executions in the United States (Death Penalty, 2019). The primary reasoning for the existence of the death penalty is that of deterrence (Nagin, 2014). However, the scientific evidence is unclear on the actual deterrent effect the death penalty has on criminal behavior (Nagin, 2014). As the research stands today, there is not enough information for evidence-based decision making to determine relevant statistics on death penalty deterrence (Nagin, 2014).
One area that is not often discussed is the effect death-eligible cases have on courtroom professionals such as forensic psychologists. The American Psychological Association (2016) has provided guidelines for the professional conduct of forensic psychologists. When conducting an assessment for a death-eligible case, frequent reference should be made to the guidelines. One important reminder for forensic psychology professionals is to consider their role within the court proceeding. It is the purpose of the examiner to provide the judge and jury with relevant information on psychological issues that pertain to the legal issue at hand (American, 2016). All information such as assessment results, clinical judgments, or expert testimony provided to the court should be accurate, fair, and avoid dishonesty (American, 2016). The role of the examiner is not to be the trier of fact, personal opinions on legal proceedings or statutory law are not a part of their professional expertise.
The forensic psychologist is not to make any judgment on specific legal matters. For example, in the past juveniles were eligible for the death penalty. For many, a strong personal or professional belief against juveniles being involved in a death-eligible case could be challenging. However, in accordance with the professional guidelines, the purpose of forensic psychologists within a court setting is to provide knowledgeable, precise, assessments of psychological issues relevant to the case. Professionals should seek to keep personal opinions or biases out of the courtroom. If one is concerned that they can not remain professional in all aspects of a death-eligible case, then they should inform the court that they are unable to complete an assessment and referrals to another professional should be provided. Professional ethics should be ever present in the courtroom. A true expert is open regarding possible biases, honest about any areas where knowledge is lacking, and transparent in the factual information provided.
American Psychological Association. (2016). Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/practive/guidelines/forenis-psy…
Death Penalty Information Center. (2019). Executions by year. Retrieved from https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions-year
Nagin, D. (2014). Deterrence and the death penalty: Why the statistics should be ignored. Signifiance, 11(2), 9-13. Doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2014.00733.x