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PSY 3100 Law and Psychology

Course Description

Introduces the major concepts, theoretical perspectives, empirical findings, historical trends, principles and practices of various areas of psychology and explores their intersection with the law. 

Course Objectives

A broad overview of how psychology and the legal system intersect. This course will help students identify the many ways - both empirical and applied - that psychology becomes an integral, if not unavoidable, part of criminal and civil justice. Topics include eyewitness identification problems, policing and police psychology, forensic assessments, jury decision-making research, and the ways that psychology can influence public policy. This course will provide students with a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities central to a career in the field of forensic psychology or legal psychology.

Week 1

Lecture: Forensic Psychology


  • Understand the different definitions of forensic psychology
  • Understand the history behind the relationship between psychology and law
  • Understand the inherent conflicts in combining psychology and law 
  • Discuss the various roles that psychologists play in the legal system
  • Differentiate between the expert witness as a conduit-educator, a philosopher-ruler/advocate, and a hired gun
  • Discuss the various temptations and limitations within a forensic psychologist's roles and responsibilities

Week 2

Lecture: Psychology and Law Enforcement


  • Understand the difference in tasks for a psychologist when the clientele is the public versus when the clientele is the police
  • Understand the tools used in selection of police officers
  • Describe the typical activities of a psychologist in a police department
  • Explain how psychologists assist in creating and assessing training curriculum
  • Describe the roles of psychologists in hostage-taking situations
  • Define a fitness-for-duty evaluation and discuss its importance

Week 3

Lecture: Techniques of Criminal Investigations


  • Understand the process and limitations of criminal profiling
  • Evaluate the validity of profiling techniques
  • Understand psychological autopsies or equivocal death analyses, including their limitations
  • Critically evaluate hypnosis, distinguishing fact from fiction
  • Understand the polygraph examination, its errors and limitations, and the current legal status of its use

Week 4

Lecture: Insanity and Competency
Lecture: Dangerousness and Risk Assessment


  • Understand the definitions of insanity and why it may be difficult to assess
  • Understand the roles that the psychologist may play in insanity cases 
  • Distinguish between insanity and competency
  • Understand the different types of competency
  • Understand what a risk assessment entails and how psychologists can predict dangerousness
  • Differentiate between clinical, actuarial, and anamnestic predictors
  • Differentiate between static, dynamic, and risk management predictors 
  • Understand what tools and techniques are used in predicting violence, sexual offences, domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide
  • Understand the debate over whether or not clinical predictions surpass actuarial or statistical predictions

Week 5

Lecture: Battered Woman Syndrome and Rape Trauma Syndrome
Lecture: Child Sexual Abuse


  • Understand what constitutes a syndrome
  • Explain the components of Battered Woman Syndrome and possible defenses in a courtroom
  • Understand the role of a psychologist as an expert witness in BWS cases and problems that the psychologist may encounter 
  • Understand how a juror may react to syndrome evidence
  • Identify common criticisms of BWS and BWS expert testimony
  • Understand the components of Rape Trauma Syndrome, including its relationship to PTSD
  • Explain why experts are often not allowed in RTS cases 
  • Understand other closely related defenses including postpartum psychosis
  • Understand the different roles for psychologists in child sex abuse cases, including evaluating the child, assessing competency to testify, preparing the child to testify, and testifying as an expert witness 
  • Discuss different interviewing techniques and problems that may arise with the use of leading questions or props such as anatomically correct dolls
  • Discuss relevant court cases addressing children's testimony
  • Understand the different types of testimony a psychologist may give as an expert for one side or the other

Week 6

Lecture: Improving Eyewitness Identification Procedures
Lecture: Interrogations and Confessions


  • Understand the important role an eyewitness plays in a criminal case
  • Understand how eyewitnesses can contribute to wrongful convictions
  • Differentiate between system and estimator variables
  • Explain how eyewitnesses are affected by questioning and lineups
  • Understand how psychological research can, and has, contributed to changes in public policy 
  • Understand how false confessions can occur and be able to differentiate between different types of false confessions
  • Understand the goals and procedures used in interrogations and the psychological impact
  • Understand how psychologists can assist police, the courts, and be an advocate for society in this topic 

Week 7

Lecture: Trial Consultations


  • Understand the roles and responsibilities of a trial consultant
  • Describe the various pretrial activities and concerns of trial consultants
  • Understand the issue of change of venue and the impact of pretrial publicity
  • Describe how consultants can assist in witness preparation and case organization 
  • Understand the process of jury selection and the contributions (and limitations) of scientific jury selection 
  • Describe some of the controversies surrounding the use of trial consultants 

Week 8

Lecture: Death Penalty Trials and Appeals
Lecture: Influencing Public Policy


  • Understand why and how forensic psychologists may become involved in death penalty cases
  • Discuss the various roles a psychologist may play
  • Understand the history of the Supreme Court rulings regarding the death penalty 
  • Understand the various ways psychologists can influence public policy
  • Discuss the use of amicus briefs and provide examples
  • Discuss the effectiveness of APA’s amicus briefs 

The course description, objectives and learning outcomes are subject to change without notice based on enhancements made to the course. March 2012