Forensic Psychiatry Expert Witness Opines on Indigent Criminal Defendant’s Right to Forensic Expert Witness at Trial


Forensic psychiatryThis case involves an indigent man who was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting of a couple and their two children and possession of illegal firearms. At his arraignment, the man’s behavior was so odd that the trial judge ordered him to be examined by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist found him incompetent to stand trial and committed him. Six weeks later, the man was released from the state mental hospital and found competent to stand trial because he was on antipsychotic drugs. When his trial resumed, the man’s attorney notified the prosecution that he would use the insanity defense and the attorney requested a psychiatric evaluation at the State’s expense to determine the man’s mental state at the time of the crime. The court denied the man’s request for an evaluation and there was no evidence presented at trial as to the man’s sanity at the time of the crime. The man was convicted of murder and was sentenced to the death penalty. The man appealed his conviction on the basis that he should have been provided the services of a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist since he was indigent.

Question(s) For Expert Witness

  • 1. Does an indigent person in a criminal case have the right to have an evaluation by a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist?

Expert Witness Response

Usually, when a defendant in a criminal case has made an initial showing that their sanity at the time of the crime is likely to be a significant factor at trial, they are guaranteed by the US Constitution (and usually the relevant state constitution) to be provided with the services of a forensic psychiatrist by the State if they cannot afford to hire one. In order to determine whether the use of a forensic psychiatrist is necessary to the defense of an indigent person in a criminal case, the court usually considers three factors: (1) the private interest that will be affected by the State’s actions; (2) the State’s interest that will be affected if the psychiatrist is provided; and (3) the value of the safeguards that will be gained by using a psychiatrist and the risk of an erroneous deprivation of justice that might occur if a psychiatrist is not provided to the indigent person. In this case, the man probably had the right to have a forensic psychiatrist appointed to evaluate him because the psychiatrist’s assistance was needed in order to resolve the issue of his sanity at the time the crime was committed. The man also probably had the right to have a forensic psychiatrist appointed in this case because this would have allowed him a fair opportunity to prepare and present his insanity defense.

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