Road Rage

When a truck runs down retired school teacher Margaret O’Neal a few days after a home-owner taped her on CCTV burglarizing a house, the Gainesville, Florida police call in forensic psychologist Tori Vincent. Tori uncovers identity theft, human trafficking, and a serial murderer. Another murder and attempted murder keep the action moving while Tori balances her responsibilities to her twelve-year-old son and dysfunctional sister with her career and her romance with fellow psychologist Seth Rothstein. 

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All Female Jury

There has been a lot of media attention directed to the make-up of the jury in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch member who admits to shooting Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claims he shot the unarmed black Martin in self-defense.

The jury selected to hear the case is composed of six women. The race of the women was not announced, however reporters say there appear to be five white and one possible Hispanic woman on the jury. The absence of males and blacks on the jury has raised questions.

Both attorneys and forensic psychologists are interested in predicting decisions by juries. Many attempts at predicting decisions focus on characteristics of jurors like race and gender. Greenberg and Ruback describe a “folklore” developed among attorneys about which types of people make the best jurors for each side of a case (prosecution or defense). Despite a considerable amount of data collected on the topic, researchers have found no conclusive evidence of specific demographic characteristics that consistently predict the direction of verdicts.

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What is a Psychological Autopsy?

When detective Dottie Epstein asks forensic psychologist Tori Vincent that question in A Taste of Vengeance, Tori explains, “I determine the psychological state of the deceased.”

“How?” Dottie asks. “He’s dead.”

Good question – how? How do you find out what a dead person was thinking or feeling? How do you take a trip into someone’s past life?

The forensic psychologist interviews people who knew the deceased and recreates the final days and weeks of his life. She gets into the mind and psyche of the deceased; finds out if he had future plans and any anxieties or stresses in his life. All these factors help her determine the likelihood the person committed suicide.

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Is There a Violence Gene?

People with a mutation leading to low activity in their MAOA gene tend to be aggressive – so aggressive that some writers call it the “warrior gene.” People with this gene mutation feel little or no empathy for others and are more likely to hurt others.

As with most behaviors, there is a nurture factor as well as the nature factor. In other words, people who have this MAOA gene do not automatically attack other people. Some trigger in their environment is necessary to set them off. Scientists think that being exposed to trauma when they are young triggers aggression in people with low activity in the MAOA gene. For example, if when these people were children they were abused or witnessed violence (in the neighborhood or the family) they would be more likely to be aggressive as adults.

What are the implications of this research for the courts? Bradley Waldroup was tried in Tennessee for the 2006 attempted murder of his estranged wife Penney and the murder of Leslie Bradshaw. Penny dropped off their four children for a weekend visit with Waldroup. When Penny and Leslie Bradshaw began to leave, Waldroup shot Bradshaw and sliced open her head before attacking his wife with a machete. Defense attorney Wylie Richardson used the defense that Bradley Waldroup had the MAOA mutation and had been abused as a child. According to forensic psychiatrist William Bernet, this combination meant Waldroup had diminished responsibility for shooting Bradshaw and attacking his wife. Nigel Barber describes the defense as “a germ of scientific truth combined with a hefty dose of junk science, including clever labeling.” However, this defense kept Waldroup from being convicted of first degree murder.

Why we do what we do by Nigel Barber, in The Human Beast, July 13, 2010.


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Two DNAs in One Person?

Everyone has a unique DNA – right? That means everyone has one and only one DNA – right? Not so fast. Imagine Lydia Fairchild’s reaction when her DNA showed she was not the mother of her children. A father might be surprised, but a woman knows she is the mother of her children. After all, she was present at their births.

In 2002 Fairchild applied for welfare in Washington. The state required that she and her children have their DNA tested to determine if her boyfriend Jamie Townsend was the father of the children – he was. DNA tests indicated she was not the mother. Social services took the case to court. Shortly after the tests, she was due to give birth to another child. The judge ordered a witness be present at the birth and observe blood samples taken from Fairchild and the baby. DNA tests of the blood samples indicated Lydia was not the mother of the child to whom observers saw her give birth. WHAT??? How could this be?

Further testing indicated that the DNA in her internal organs was different from the DNA collected from her skin and blood. Her cervical DNA indicated she was the mother of all her children. Scientists now believe that she is a chimera, a very rare phenomenon. They hypothesize that when Fairchild was an embryo, she had a twin. “Sometimes, in the womb, one fraternal twin ‘consumes’ the other – absorbing the second twin’s cells into itself. The resulting singleton baby is a mosaic of different DNA in different organs (Psychology Today, 2013, p.72). Early in her development, Fairchild and her potential twin became one person. As an adult Fairchild had both her own DNA and the DNA of her twin.

What are the implications of this on DNA identification? What are the implications for trials using DNA as evidence?

Read more about this research in Psychology Today, March/April 2013. and

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