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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
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