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The Boston Globe

Business

On the job

Legal complexities — but little drama

Caleb Newman-Polk.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Caleb Newman-Polk.

Forensic psychology isn’t nearly as drama-filled as depicted on TV crime shows, said Caleb Newman-Polk, 37, of Psychological Consulting Services in Salem. His work lies at the intersection of law and clinical psychology, answering complex questions that arise in the legal system: Is a suspect mentally competent to face charges? What custody situation might be best for a child? Does this perpetrator understand that what she is doing is wrong?

As a forensic professional in Massachusetts courts, Newman-Polk is involved in a range of court proceedings, from evaluating offenders to presenting evidence in court to advising parole boards.

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“One of the key questions I often need to answer,” said Newman-Polk, “is whether a client is distorting or portraying information inaccurately.”

What is a typical day like for you?

I might be typing up a report and returning calls from an attorney. The next day, I could be at a psychiatric office, prison, then lawyer’s office interviewing clients or defendants. Then I might be in court all day as an expert witness.

Is it true that forensic psychologists need a healthy level of skepticism?

A lot of time defendants want to put themselves in the best light possible, and that means lying or exaggerating the truth. When I’m doing a criminal evaluation, it’s not uncommon for people to feign symptoms of mental illness.

Have you had to deal with difficult moral issues?

Most definitely. I need to ask an individual to talk about horrifying details, but it’s still necessary for me to be objective. I had to evaluate a young man who tortured and killed his dog. As a dog lover, [I was] really disturbed. But as I listened, it became clear to me that in some twisted way, he really believed he was caring for these animals.

When you take the stand, what approach do you adopt?

I learned very early to answer questions as briefly and as straightforwardly as possible. If the prosecuting attorney asks me, “Do you think that the client was mentally ill?” I just answer yes or no and leave it at that.

How do you deal with the emotional toll that this profession brings?

I sort through the legal — and emotional — questions with colleagues. I also have a wife who was a lawyer and is now a mental health worker at a prison. She’s able to relate to a lot of the work that I do.

Have television crime shows affected the judicial process ?

These shows may have changed how jury trials work — many juries now seem to expect iron-clad evidence to convict anyone. That’s not how it works. Because of these highly romanticized shows, juries have come to expect simple solutions.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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