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January 2011 Issue

Scott Bresler, PhD
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Search for Justice Leads to UC's Psychiatry Department

Published January 2011

When producers of a public television documentary examining police procedure in a controversial murder case sought insight into how the investigation went terribly wrong, they turned to UC’s department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience.

Specifically, they sought out Scott Bresler, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical director of the Risk Management Center in the division of forensic psychiatry.

Bresler, a forensic psychologist, performs evaluations in criminal and civil cases in the Cincinnati area and around the country, including diagnostic, neurocognitive and violence risk assessments. The division does between 100 and 150 assessments yearly, according to Bresler.

"There’s a lot of integration between psychology and psychiatry in this field,” says Bresler. "Essentially, it consists of expertise in the assessment and treatment of mental health issues and then their application to areas of law.”
In criminal cases, such issues may include assessments for insanity defenses, competency to stand trial and mitigating circumstances in death penalty eligible cases. On the civil side, assessments generally involve cases pertaining to psychological damages. Risk assessments are requested by courts, law enforcement agencies and corporations.

The documentary, which includes an on-camera interview with Bresler, is a production of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) Television, Nebraska’s public broadcasting station. Titled "CSI on Trial,” it premiered in November as the third of three NET Television documentaries designed to give viewers insight into the use of forensic science.

"CSI on Trial” focuses on the killing of a farm couple in their Murdock, Neb., home and the ensuing police investigation. By the time the case was finally closed, two innocent men spent seven months in jail, and a crime scene investigator was convicted of falsifying evidence.

The real killers were caught only because of a lucky break. Police videos aired on the documentary showed Matt Livers, a nephew of the slain couple, confessing to the killings and implicating his cousin, Nick Sampson.

The obvious question: Why would someone confess to a killing if in fact he didn’t do it?

While physical torture is not legally accepted practice, Bresler says, criminal investigators have wide latitude with psychologically coercive techniques.

"Police are allowed to lie; they can put pressure on you for many hours of interrogation; they can say all sorts of bad things will happen to you if you don’t cooperate with them,” says Bresler. "And there’s a subgroup of people that will bend under this sort of pressure, and as a consequence, they will tell the police what they want to hear just to stop it.”

That was the case with Livers, who underwent a forensic psychological assessment by Bresler. Police were convinced that Livers—who had low intellectual function and was highly compliant—was guilty, and they subjected him to more than 11 hours of questioning that included threats of the death penalty.

"When you get into a situation where police are hell-bent on proving what they know to be true—that they have the guilty party—when in fact that’s not the case, then bad things happen,” Bresler said in the documentary.

Bresler says false confessions can also happen in the case of notoriety seekers and with a subgroup of persons who actually come to believe that they committed the crime, along with people who believe they will derive a benefit or avoid harm from confessing.

"False confessions are the root of many wrongful convictions,” says Bresler. "Armed with the right assessment tools, a well-trained forensic psychologist or psychiatrist can play a significant role in identifying them and ensuring that justice is done.”

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