Class Act

Tess Neal

Tess Neal has heard her share of horrific stories. As a graduate student specializing in psychology-law, she has worked with forensic psychologists, criminals and victims of domestic violence. Still, when she heard that a biology professor shot six colleagues during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, last winter, it shook her. Neal, who goes to school just two hours away in Tuscaloosa, aspires to work in academia one day, and the idea that a professor could lose control like that made her feel "very vulnerable." So when her department chair asked if any advanced clinical psychology students would volunteer to help counsel students and faculty in Huntsville, Neal was quick to sign up.

Although Neal had had experience working with victims of domestic abuse and even people who had witnessed murders, this was an entirely new scenario. She and a supervisor talked with students and faculty who had witnessed dead bodies being wheeled out of the building and victims running through the hallways bleeding and screaming. Still, Neal has never been one to shy away from difficult work. She has published nine peer-reviewed articles and served as a first author on four. Her curriculum vitae — which runs for 12 pages — lists more than a dozen scholarships, awards and fellowships. Her latest award was a $15,000 dissertation research grant from the National Science Foundation to study bias in forensic assessments. In her spare time, she runs half marathons.

"She's a ball of fire," says Stanley Brodsky, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Neal's adviser. "She's going to have a major impact on the field."

Driving ambition

Neal stumbled onto her specialty, psychology-law, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Hoping to get a leg up on her graduate school applications, she "went knocking on faculty members' doors to see who needed help," she says. Brian Bornstein, PhD, a psychologist whose research focuses on how juries make decisions and the reliability of eyewitness testimony, happened to be in his office that day. Bornstein recommended Neal take a class in psychology-law, the field that looks at the intersection between human behavior and legal system.

With Bornstein, Neal began working on a project that looked at whether juror beliefs about the length of time it takes an eyewitness to pick someone out of a lineup affect how jurors view that person's credibility. For example, would jurors who think that speedy identifications are important for accuracy view witnesses who take their time as less credible? That became her undergraduate thesis. Although Neal did not see an effect, she became hooked on psychology-law. "It absolutely intrigued me, and I decided I wanted to make a career out of it," she says. The research will appear soon in the journal Psychology, Crime, & Law.

Life-or-death decisions

Neal's latest project, her graduate dissertation, examines a different aspect of psychology-law. She has turned her focus from juries to reflect on her own future profession: forensic psychology.

Forensic psychologists play an important role in the criminal justice system. They must assess whether defendants are fit to stand trial and whether they were sane at the time they committed crimes. In some cases, officials may also ask them to assess the mental health of inmates on death row. Inmates who are insane cannot be put to death.

In all criminal trials, it's up to the jury to decide guilt or innocence. Still, a psychologist's assessment can have a profound influence on the outcome of a trial. This puts them in a difficult position. If they testify that a defendant was mentally ill when he or she committed a crime, the accused is more likely to end up in a mental hospital. If they testify that the defendant was sane, that person might be more likely to end up on death row.

Neal has often wondered whether it's possible to be objective in such cases. It's not just an academic question — one day she hopes to conduct those evaluations herself. "I definitely have some moral qualms about the death penalty," she says. "I have questioned whether I can do any forensic work in death penalty cases."

For her dissertation, Neal is investigating how forensic psychologists maintain objectivity and whether their attitudes about the death penalty influence their assessments. To begin, she interviewed 20 board-certified psychologists who conduct forensic evaluations. "We're trained in graduate school that it is absolutely essential that you be objective when you do your evaluations," she says. "The problem is that there is no good training for how to be objective." So Neal asked whether they think they're biased and how they maintain objectivity. She's found that most psychologists say they have to work to stay objective. "They gave me all kinds of insight," she says.

For instance, some said they decline cases if they have a strong emotional reaction to the crime. Perhaps the victim reminds them of their daughter, or maybe they have trouble maintaining objectivity in sex-offense cases. Once the psychologist agrees to take the case, Neal learned, the key is to focus on the data. "Don't go in looking for evidence to support your hypothesis," she says. "Go in not having a conclusion and let the data tell the story."

Next, Neal will create a survey that "asks the same questions but in a way where I can statistically look at some of the answers." She plans to send the survey to 1,000 practicing clinical psychologists with an interest in forensic psychology. Neal will find them by searching for psychologists who are members of APA's Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) and either Div. 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice) or Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology). By including a letter indicating university sponsorship and sending a follow-up postcard, she hopes to increase the response rate.

For the final piece of her dissertation, Neal will examine case reports from a local hospital that houses patients who were found guilty by reason of insanity or who were deemed incompetent to stand trial. Specifically, she is looking at murder cases in which a psychologist determined whether the defendant was sane when committing the crime. Those are the cases where bias is most likely to appear because "there aren't good tools available and there's no good structure for how these things should be done," she says. Neal will comb the reports for evidence of bias, looking at, for example, what kind of sources psychologists used.

Neal's ambitious project got a little easier in May when the National Science Foundation awarded her a $15,000 research grant. Not many people get these grants, Brodsky says. "They're very competitive." It was a big win for Neal. "I jumped around my living room screaming," she says.

Screaming aside, one of the qualities that sets Neal apart from her peers is her maturity, Brodsky says. "She is a thoughtful, trained scholar who processes information at the level you expect a colleague to do," he says.

Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.