In celebrity courtroom slugfest, legal glare also falls on expert medical testimony

deppheardnbc-300x173When two wealthy celebrities engage in no-holds barred combat in a courtroom over the most personal aspects of their private lives together, the results can be disconcerting — but also riveting — for regular folks watching the legal wrangling.

The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation case, with its mixed verdict from jurors, not only became an obsession for many pop culture fans, it also has prompted a torrent of commentary about its First Amendment implications, jurisprudence in Britain vs. America, as well as what the brutal dispute may mean for men and women litigants.

The case also should force a serious reconsideration of the tough issue of intimate partner violence and the expertise that medical and mental health specialists can bring to bear to help outsiders understand this largely hidden problem, two forensic psychiatrists, Renée Sorrentino and Susan Hatters Friedman, argue.

In a post published on the KevinMD.com site, a popular social media spot for medical experts to share ideas and experiences with each other online, Sorrentino and Friedman say this about these “he said, she said” legal battles:

“As this case aims to uncover the truth of the matter — whether defamation occurred to either party —it seems only fitting to uncover the truth about IPV  [interpersonal violence], which is at the core of this case. As forensic psychiatrists, familiar with this area of subspecialty, we aim to debunk several of the proposed truisms regarding IPV and the role of mental health experts. Here are the truths about … misunderstandings that may result from the trial coverage.”

Their points include these, quoting liberally from their post:

1. There is no psychological ‘test’ or tool to determine the veracity of an individual’s claim of intimate partner violence. The credibility of a witness is the domain of the jury, not a mental health expert. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are not ‘lie detectors.’ Forensic psychologists don’t possess special skills or expertise to determine whether Depp or Heard were victims of IPV. As a result, forensic psychiatrists or psychologists should not deviate into the domain of whether it happened or not.

2. Specialized medical experts— such as forensic pathologists or child abuse pediatricians— can determine whether a physical injury occurred in the context of a reported altercation. Unlike mental health experts, these experts study the mechanics of the injury as well as the clinical appearance of the injury to determine whether such injury is likely to have resulted from the reported act. Historical injuries are evaluated by reviewing contemporaneous medical records documenting injuries.

3. Mental health experts can offer opinions about whether an individual’s reported psychiatric symptoms are consistent with a psychiatric disorder. Mental health experts are knowledgeable about the diagnostic criteria and clinical presentations of psychiatric disorders. This knowledge is used to compare an individual’s reported experiences and then to describe to the trier of fact, whether the individual’s experience is consistent with what we know about this disorder.

4. Intimate partner violence is often bidirectional. Women have agency and can be violent too. Depending on the study, IPV perpetration rates are similar for women and men. Stereotyping women as victims and men as perpetrators undermines our progress moving away from sexism and not defining either gender by societal attitudes.”

The duo also say that interpersonal violence “does not necessarily result” in post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which they note is a condition that the public has grown familiar with — making it easier to “feign” and challenging for experts to measure and test. Those experiencing PTSD in reaction to interpersonal violence have unique, individual, and complex cases. This is a reality that experts and the public must grasp, applying the same realization to intimate personal violence itself.

They underscore the importance of experts hewing to reliable, objective evidence in their fields and not allowing “gender stereotypes” and other inherent biases to color testimony they offer. They make this salient point:

Psychological tests never make a diagnosisThey may help support a diagnosis, but they are insufficient to make the actual psychiatric diagnosis. Mental health experts who overly rely on psychological tests are not performing within the standard of care for the field of psychology or psychiatry.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their fortitude  in pursuing justice in the civil system in many different kinds of lawsuits that can be emotional, draining, complex, drawn out, and full of contentious testimony by experts put up by both sides.

For the parties in trials, the public, jurors, and yes, judges, expert testimony can be at once invaluable and confounding. On the firm’s site, we include transcripts of cross-examination of those with considerable credentials and who put themselves up to speak to matters that their own words show to be beyond their ken. (To see examples, just use the firm’s website search tool, typing in “expert testimony.”)

Sorrentino and Friedman make an important closing statement of their own and worth repeating about the Depp-Heard case and the expertise offered in it:

“The widespread attention to the Depp vs. Heard trial provides an educational opportunity about the important issues of intimate partner violence and PTSD. When mental health experts do not acknowledge the limitations of the field or present opinions that do not objectively evaluate the information presented, one risks providing misinformation. Efforts to move away from gender stereotypes and closer to equity are stalled, and prevention of intimate partner violence—the ultimate goal— becomes more fraught.”

Photo credit: NBC News screen capture from video of celebrity couple in happier days.
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