Forensic Psychology

Forensic Psychology

Criminal Evaluations

Please click on the topics below for a description of Dr. Ernst’s approach to conducting various evaluations in criminal proceedings:

In the capital arena, psychologists may be retained or appointed during sentencing or habeas corpus proceedings in order to provide opinions relevant to mitigation, violence risk, ineffective assistance of counsel, and present or retrospective competency. Within this complex legal arena, in which examinees face the most severe of punishments, Dr. Ernst approaches evaluations with a precise understanding of the limitations of referral questions, a thorough review of applicable research, and a meticulously organized approach to reviewing records and other relevant data. Dr. Ernst’s opinions in capital proceedings have been related to psychiatric diagnoses, the retrospective assessment of adjudicative competency, and the retrospective assessment of the impact of substance use on psychological functioning.
The landmark case governing adjudicative competency is Dusky v. United States which held that the test for competence is “whether the accused has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dr. Ernst begins competency evaluations with a detailed conversation with the defendant’s attorney, regarding his observation of symptoms, potential dispositions, possible legal strategies, and the specific capacities the defendant must exhibit to assist in his defense. This conversation provides a framework to assess the presence or absence of capacities, relevant to the Dusky Standard, which the defendant must exhibit in in his unique legal circumstances. Dr. Ernst routinely utilizes forensic assessment instruments designed to assess competency including the FIT-R, ILK, and MacCAT-CA. He carefully distinguishes between competence to assist counsel (the capacity to understand one’s charges and the legal process) and decisional competence (the capacity to rationally apply this knowledge to one’s unique legal circumstances). Dr. Ernst has conducted numerous competency evaluations with individuals presenting with diverse psychiatric presentations including psychosis, mania, and neuropsychological impairment.
While courts have agreed that the Dusky Standard is the appropriate legal standard for juvenile competency, they have relied upon diverging approaches to applying this legal standard to juveniles. For instance, in the Adult Norms standard, the juvenile is expected to demonstrate the same degree of capacity as an adult to be found competent to stand trial. Alternatively, in the Adolescent Norms standard, a juvenile’s competency is determined in relation to the normative capacities of the average adolescent. In such a non-uniform legal context, Dr. Ernst is aware of the critical need to clearly explain the basis of opinions so that they may be utilized regardless of the legal standard that is ultimately applied. In California, per P.C. 1367 (a) and W&I 709, a juvenile’s incompetence may be caused by a mental disorder, developmental disability, or development immaturity. Thus, given a wide body of research indicating that children’s thinking is developmentally distinct from adults, Dr. Ernst carefully evaluates components of developmental immaturity which may impact competency include impulsivity, abstract thinking, perception of risk, and perspective in decision-making. Dr. Ernst utilizes the Juvenile Adjudicative Competence Instrument to guide his collection of developmentally relevant data.
As assessment of violence risk may be required in legal settings including capital sentencing, MDO evaluations, evaluations of individuals found NGRI, and the evaluation of sexually violent predators. When conducting violence risk assessments, Dr. Ernst carefully considers the presence or absence of risk factors or protective factors that have been empirically associated with the particular type of violence that is being assessed. He additionally conducts an individualized assessment to determine the chain of external and internal events which have historically led to violent episodes. When appropriate, Dr. Ernst utilizes violence risk assessment instruments, such as HCR-20, while carefully considering the extent to which the examinee is represented by the population with which the test was developed or validated, and research on the test’s accuracy rates. When requested, Dr. Ernst recommends interventions which may reduce the risk for violence in the future. Dr. Ernst has completed violence risk assessments of individuals with histories of severe physical or sexual violence who present with psychotic disorders, personality disorders, substance use disorder, psychopathic features, or severe neuropsychological impairment. He is additionally experienced in the retrospective assessment of violence risk as may be applied to civil proceedings.
A mitigation evaluation may be requested by the defense to provide a humanizing narrative of the defendant’s life history prior to an alleged offense. Mitigation evaluations are not utilized to question the criminal culpability of the defendant, but alternatively to assert that the defendant’s life history and mental status reduce his moral culpability and need for punishment. The factors which may considered during a mitigation evaluation are vast and may include psychiatric diagnoses, psychological trauma, substance dependence, intellectual impairment, community violence, limited social-educational opportunity, and severe poverty. The completion of mitigation evaluations is of particular interest to Dr. Ernst, who draws upon his extensive experience evaluating and treating trauma in marginalized populations.

Criminal Evaluations

Please click on a topic below for a description of Dr. Ernst’s approach to conducting various evaluations in criminal proceedings:

In the capital arena, psychologists may be retained or appointed during sentencing or habeas corpus proceedings in order to provide opinions relevant to mitigation, violence risk, ineffective assistance of counsel, and present or retrospective competency. Within this complex legal arena, in which examinees face the most severe of punishments, Dr. Ernst approaches evaluations with a precise understanding of the limitations of referral questions, a thorough review of applicable research, and a meticulously organized approach to reviewing records and other relevant data. Dr. Ernst’s opinions in capital proceedings have been related to psychiatric diagnoses, the retrospective assessment of adjudicative competency, and the retrospective assessment of the impact of substance use on psychological functioning.
The landmark case governing adjudicative competency is Dusky v. United States which held that the test for competence is “whether the accused has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dr. Ernst begins competency evaluations with a detailed conversation with the defendant’s attorney, regarding his observation of symptoms, potential dispositions, possible legal strategies, and the specific capacities the defendant must exhibit to assist in his defense. This conversation provides a framework to assess the presence or absence of capacities, relevant to the Dusky Standard, which the defendant must exhibit in in his unique legal circumstances. Dr. Ernst routinely utilizes forensic assessment instruments designed to assess competency including the FIT-R, ILK, and MacCAT-CA. He carefully distinguishes between competence to assist counsel (the capacity to understand one’s charges and the legal process) and decisional competence (the capacity to rationally apply this knowledge to one’s unique legal circumstances). Dr. Ernst has conducted numerous competency evaluations with individuals presenting with diverse psychiatric presentations including psychosis, mania, and neuropsychological impairment.
While courts have agreed that the Dusky Standard is the appropriate legal standard for juvenile competency, they have relied upon diverging approaches to applying this legal standard to juveniles. For instance, in the Adult Norms standard, the juvenile is expected to demonstrate the same degree of capacity as an adult to be found competent to stand trial. Alternatively, in the Adolescent Norms standard, a juvenile’s competency is determined in relation to the normative capacities of the average adolescent. In such a non-uniform legal context, Dr. Ernst is aware of the critical need to clearly explain the basis of opinions so that they may be utilized regardless of the legal standard that is ultimately applied. In California, per P.C. 1367 (a) and W&I 709, a juvenile’s incompetence may be caused by a mental disorder, developmental disability, or development immaturity. Thus, given a wide body of research indicating that children’s thinking is developmentally distinct from adults, Dr. Ernst carefully evaluates components of developmental immaturity which may impact competency include impulsivity, abstract thinking, perception of risk, and perspective in decision-making. Dr. Ernst utilizes the Juvenile Adjudicative Competence Instrument to guide his collection of developmentally relevant data.
As assessment of violence risk may be required in legal settings including capital sentencing, MDO evaluations, evaluations of individuals found NGRI, and the evaluation of sexually violent predators. When conducting violence risk assessments, Dr. Ernst carefully considers the presence or absence of risk factors or protective factors that have been empirically associated with the particular type of violence that is being assessed. He additionally conducts an individualized assessment to determine the chain of external and internal events which have historically led to violent episodes. When appropriate, Dr. Ernst utilizes violence risk assessment instruments, such as HCR-20, while carefully considering the extent to which the examinee is represented by the population with which the test was developed or validated, and research on the test’s accuracy rates. When requested, Dr. Ernst recommends interventions which may reduce the risk for violence in the future. Dr. Ernst has completed violence risk assessments of individuals with histories of severe physical or sexual violence who present with psychotic disorders, personality disorders, substance use disorder, psychopathic features, or severe neuropsychological impairment. He is additionally experienced in the retrospective assessment of violence risk as may be applied to civil proceedings.
A mitigation evaluation may be requested by the defense to provide a humanizing narrative of the defendant’s life history prior to an alleged offense. Mitigation evaluations are not utilized to question the criminal culpability of the defendant, but alternatively to assert that the defendant’s life history and mental status reduce his moral culpability and need for punishment. The factors which may considered during a mitigation evaluation are vast and may include psychiatric diagnoses, psychological trauma, substance dependence, intellectual impairment, community violence, limited social-educational opportunity, and severe poverty. The completion of mitigation evaluations is of particular interest to Dr. Ernst, who draws upon his extensive experience evaluating and treating trauma in marginalized populations.