Forensics is the application of science to criminal investigations. Forensics can include a wide array of sciences from physics to psychics. A forensic report simply and succinctly summarizes the substantive evidence in a criminal case. Forensic report writing may prove difficult and daunting because it usually demands analyses of technical data, presented in a readable, easy-to-follow format. Nevertheless, a forensic report essentially follows the same basic standards and protocols required of any report.
Identify the Data and the Events
Gather all relevant details, both about the subject of your report and about the events leading up to the conclusion of your investigation. Identify all legal representatives and all sources from whom you gathered relevant forensic evidence. Most importantly, be prepared to note the scientific basis upon which you are qualified to give the report.
Begin writing the report, identifying the parties involved, including names, dates of birth and genders; specific dates; locations; alleged offenses; and the causative chain of events. Accurately describe all details of what allegedly transpired.
Structure of Psychological Evaluation
In the case of a psychological opinion – which should be provided by a licensed clinician – the clinician should be prepared to give her clinical impressions. Clinicians should be able to describe their opinion of the defendant, inferring the condition of his mental or cognitive state, and document their conclusion.
At a bare minimum, such a report should include:
- Description of defendant’s psychological disposition based on the clinician’s professional observation. Include any personal interviews with defendant and documents reviewed.
- Contact defendant’s attorneys to help assess the defendant's perceptions before, during and after the alleged incident.
- Provide relevant information about the defendant's psychiatric/psychological history, including relevant details about any substance abuse or involvement with the criminal justice system.
Defendant’s Current Circumstances
If possible, document the defendant's current living circumstances, where do they live and why. Describe any relationships the defendant may have had with the alleged victim and anything within the defendant’s current circumstances that may have precipitated the alleged incident.
Defendant’s Mental Status
Specifically state any positive and/or negative findings regarding the defendant's mental status that can be backed up. Include direct quotes and objective assessments, such as manifestations of suicidal or homicidal tendencies or anything suggesting psychosis. If necessary information is unavailable, document why it is not included.
Provide concrete examples to demonstrate the defendant's mental abilities and deficiencies. The clinician should extrapolate from previously annotated observations to assess the defendant's mental competence. However, the clinician’s strongest basis for assessing the defendant is his own observations of the defendant. The clinician should have spent enough time observing the defendant to present solid evidence of the defendant’s competence.
- Exclude from the record any self-incriminating statements made by the defendant regarding the alleged offense; such assertions are inadmissible in determining legal competence.
- Provide data that identifies the presence or absence of mental illness during and/or before the alleged incident to assess criminal responsibility. Include any other potential extenuating and/or incriminating factors necessary for the court to determine criminal culpability.
Conclusion and Disposition
A forensic report is incomplete without conclusions and recommendations. The clinician’s previous data must support the conclusions. In the recommendation, the clinician should include all opinions concerning mental competency. Harness the evidence to substantiate your professional opinion.
After the court reaches a disposition in the defendant's case, document the outcome of the case whenever possible. If information that would lead to a different recommendation becomes available after the completion of your report, submit an addendum explaining the reason for the change.
- Keep it simple. Stay terse and to the point in your descriptions.
- Present your evaluation in a readable, unambiguous prose style with easily accessible references.
- Keep copies of any addenda with your original report.
Melissa McCall is an accomplished lawyer, science journalist and legal analyst. She graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 2003 and spent two years as a Judicial Law Clerk, followed by 2 years at a general litigation firm and a brief stint as the Director of Environmental Protection for the Virgin Islands. Since leaving the US Virgin Islands, she has worked as a legal recruiter, legal writer and legal analyst.