THE NONDOCTORAL WITNESS
"You're not a doctor, are you?"
When mental health issues arise in the courtroom situation, it is presumed that the expert witness will be either adoctoral trained psychologist or a psychiatrist. Indeed, in most jurisdictions the members of a sanity commissions to determine criminal responsibility are, by statute, limited to doctoral level clinicians.
But how do the courts treat a nondoctoral professional who is knowledgeable in psychological issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, and chemical dependency? Often, the practitioners most experienced in certain family problems and drug abuse are master's level psychologists, social workers, and those who are certified in marriage and family therapy or substance abuse counseling. What does the law dictate about the admissibility of these specialists who are skilled in mental health problems? Are academic degrees and titles, such as "Doctor," essential to be accepted as an expert in the courtroom?
In the landmark 1962 case of Jenkins v. United States, the opinions of three psychiatrists, who found no evidence of mental disease in the accused assailant, were accepted, whereas the jury was instructed to disregard the testimony of the three defense psychologists, who stated that the defendant had a mental disease when he committed the alleged crime. However, on appeal Circuit Judge David L. Bazelon ruled that psychologists are qualified as experts to diagnose mental disease and to express an opinion as to whether a stated mental disease caused a person to commit a given unlawful act. In Jenkins, Judge Bazelon affirmed that degrees or titles are not prerequisites to qualify a witness as an expert. Thus, a person is qualified to testify because of having knowledge that the jury does not have regarding the issue at hand.