For all you psychologists, here's a quick ethics vignette:
You live and work in a small town, population 13,000. Like many psychologists, you have a diverse practice. You treat patients at a local mental health clinic. You serve on professional boards. You work part-time as a consultant to the local sheriff's department.What do you do?
One day, the sheriff asks you to come down and help with some interrogations in a cold case of sexual assault and murder. Among the suspects being questioned are Deb and Ada, two young women you treated in your private practice.
If you are Wayne R. Price, Ph.D. of Beatrice, Nebraska, you see no problem in interrogating the young women despite having been their therapist:
"What I find, I find. It makes no difference to me," Price testified at a pretrial hearing. "When I have an emotional involvement or vested interest and can't do it objectively, I will say so."
Price's role in helping elicit confessions from two of his former patients is in the spotlight now, almost two decades later, because of new DNA evidence pointing to a different killer. The so-called Beatrice Six case has set a record for the number of people exonerated by DNA evidence in a single case.
The five suspects who confessed fit the pattern of false confession cases: Suggestible young people with psychiatric or cognitive problems who used alcohol or drugs, were easily confused, and were worn down by aggressive questioning.
False confessions like this are not nearly as unusual as many people still think. According to the Innocence Project, they have been found in about one-fourth of DNA exonerations.
What is unusual in the Beatrice Six case is the psychologist's role. A psychologist playing the dual roles of trusted therapist and criminal interrogator "would have had a powerful place of trust and persuasion over suspects," the Omaha World-Herald cites confession experts as stating.
The Six did not become formal suspects until four years after the 1985 murder of Helen Wilson. The ball got rolling when a hard-partying 23-year-old named Tom Winslow was in jail for an unrelated crime, the beating of a motel clerk during a robbery. Police approached him with an offer he couldn't refuse: "Help us solve our murder case, and we'll get you out of jail on bond."
Winslow claims police called him a liar and threatened him with the electric chair if he did not confess. He said police fed him information and "suggested he was blocking out memories of a horrific crime due to the cloud of alcohol or drug abuse," according to reporter Paul Hammel, who has followed the case for the World-Herald.
Earlier this month, authorities announced that the DNA found at the crime scene matched an Oklahoma City man, Bruce Smith, who had since died. In light of that evidence, the state is seeking pardons for the Beatrice Six.
Joseph White, a 26-year-old drifter from Alabama, was the only one of the Six who refused to confess. A jury deliberated for only a few hours before convicting him anyway, largely on the testimony of co-defendants who received reduced charges in exchange.
One of White's attorney's, Toney Redman, recalled arguing in court that those testifying were "so weak-minded" that their stories could not be trusted.
"I'm fully convinced now that the police, if they wanted to, could get any borderline personality person, who has alcohol and drug issues, and scare them to death and get them to confess to anything," he told the World-Herald.
Two of the three who testified against White - Ada JoAnn Taylor and Deb Shelden - were former patients of Dr. Price. Their accounts reportedly changed over time, partly after Dr. Price encouraged them to recollect more details.
Taylor, diagnosed by Price with a personality disorder, initially said she couldn't recall much because she had memory problems. After police insisted she was at the scene of the murder, she eventually changed her story. She also told investigators she communicated telepathically with a friend and had five former lives and an imaginary twin. She took a plea deal and was paroled in November.
Shelden, the other former patient of Price's, initially told interrogators she didn't recall the details of the assault on her grand-aunt until months later, when she began having nightmares. She said Dr. Price helped her to remember the details. Shelden was paroled after serving 10 years in prison.
Although Dr. Price - now executive director of Blue Valley Behavioral Health in Beatrice - doesn't see a problem with his dual roles in the Beatrice Six case, many other psychologists might.
Beneficence and Nonmaleficence is the very first principle of the American Psychological Association's Ethics Code, advising us to to "benefit those with whom [we] work and take care to do no harm." Another principle, Justice, cautions psychologists to "exercise reasonable judgment and take precautions" to avoid participating in unjust practices. A third principle, Respect for People's Rights and Dignity, discusses the duty to safeguard people's confidentiality and self-determination, especially when their "vulnerabilities [might] impair autonomous decision making."
The dangers of multiple relationships are specifically addressed in Section 3.05 of the Ethics Code. Psychologists are forbidden from engaging in dual relationships that "risk exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists."
The Forensic Psychology Specialty Guidelines, published two years after Dr. Price's involvement in the Beatrice Six interrogations, also caution against engaging in dual relationships that might cause harm: "Forensic psychologists recognize potential conflicts of interest in dual relationships with parties to a legal proceeding, and they seek to minimize their effects. Forensic psychologists avoid providing professional services to parties in a legal proceeding with whom they have personal or professional relationships that are inconsistent with the anticipated relationship."
It's hard to see how providing someone with confidential psychological therapy would not be inconsistent with later becoming that person's police interrogator.
If you have other thoughts on the ethical contours of this case, I encourage you to comment.
Omaha World-Herald coverage of the Beatrice Six case is here, here, and here.
A classic article on dual roles in forensic psychology is: Greenberg, S.A. & Shuman, D.W. (1997). Irreconcilable Conflict Between Therapeutic & Forensic Roles. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 28, 50-57.