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Law, medical schools tackle psychiatric issues in court

February 25, 2015

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Tulane Law student Tanganica Turner (L ’15), in the role of defense lawyer, questions Tulane Psychiatry Professor Michael Blue, acting as an expert witness, in a joint law/medical school mock trial involving a mentally ill defendant. New Orleans attorney Sara Johnson (L ’07) served as judge.

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Tulane Law clinical students Demetrius Sumner, Ryann Hall, Aaron Brown, Paige Cobbs and Tanganica Turner (all L ’15) prepare to question a witness during a mock trial exercise with Tulane Medical School psychiatry fellows.

In the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, the “expert witness” responded as “prosecutor” Aaron Brown (L ’15) asked a round of questions about the capital murder defendant’s mental competency to stand trial.

Does he understand the nature of the charges against him? 

Does he understand the defenses available to him? 

Does he understand his rights? 

After the prosecution concluded its efforts to establish that the accused could assist his attorney, “defense attorney” Tanganica Turner (L ’15) took over questioning.

Hadn’t the psychiatrist diagnosed the defendant with multiple psychiatric illnesses? 

Hadn’t a different examining physician noted that the defendant refused to discuss the facts of his case? 

Couldn’t the defendant continue to experience mental illness despite taking medication? 

Once the lawyers summed up their positions, they went into the judge’s chambers.

There, they received not a judicial ruling but feedback on their performance from Tulane law and medical school faculty who’d been observing from the jury box.

The exercise was part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the schools to provide training in critical skills — dealing with difficult mental health issues in high-stakes criminal cases. It’s a required assignment for students in the Tulane Criminal Litigation Clinic, which Professor Katherine Mattes directs. 

The mock trial, which the law and medical schools have teamed on since 2007, is built around the facts of a real case and gives both the law students and the forensic psychiatry fellows who act as expert witnesses a chance to practice skills and get cross-disciplinary instruction that can make them more effective in a courtroom.

“The exercise was a great opportunity to practice a skill which is not taught in typical law school classes and which can be important in criminal law practice,” law student Steve Walsh (L ’15) said. “The opportunity to direct- and cross-examine real psychiatrists made the experience even more rewarding.”

Mattes, a veteran criminal defense attorney, said the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than half of all criminal defendants have a mental illness. Dealing with such issues requires lawyers for both prosecution and defense to have at least basic understanding of psychiatry and the ability to examine an expert witness. At the same time, psychiatrists who might be asked to testify in court must be able to convey medical information to a lay audience, the judge and jury.  

When a defendant’s mental state is at issue, expert witnesses are questioned to establish whether he/she understands the proceedings well enough to stand trial. For the mock trial conducted in November, six law students were designated to handle this phase of the exercise, which was based on a a notorious bar killing in which the defendant’s sanity was in dispute.

Six other students were assigned to a different issue, which would arise if the defendant went through a trial: they made closing arguments about whether he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. 

Dr. Thomas Oden, a Tulane Medical School forensic psychiatry fellow, served as an expert witness for law students appearing in one courtroom at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, while in a separate court Dr. Michael Blue, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, filled in as a witness.

Mattes called the cross-critique by law and medical faculty “particularly unique and helpful, as it provides both the law students and the fellows with the view from the other side.”

Feedback covered courtroom demeanor as well as the content of the questions and answers. One piece of advice for the lawyers, for instance, was to emphasize expert witnesses’ resume qualifications during questioning so that their expertise is clear.

“It was good insight into how someone in the legal field views us and how someone in the medical field viewed it,” said Turner, who had taken on the role of defense attorney.

Assistant Psychiatry Professor Jose F. Artecona called the mock trial “a wonderful yearly event” that provides “a good introduction and exposure to the different paradigms between our disciplines and allows the beginning of a dialogue about how we can best interact with, and understand, each other.”


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