Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Forensic Psychology....

Nigel Latta’s celebrity and professional cachet as a clinical psychologist add considerable weight to his theories about criminals. With Mark Lundy out on bail, it's interesting to look back on Latta’s pronouncements about him - and others - in the Beyond the Darklands (BTD) series.
Latta didn’t address the soundness of Lundy’s conviction. As far as Latta was concerned Lundy's guilt was a given. Clearly the six Judges of the Privy Council and the QC and members of the legal team who worked on Lundy's appeal were not of the same mind as Latta or journalist Jane Clifton, who wrote in a Dominion Post article :

"Though there has been much debate about the correctness of the jury decision to convict Lundy, owing to controversy about the timings of events the night of the murder, no-one seeing this programme can be left with much doubt." 
It’s easy to see why Clifton’s article is reproduced on the website of Screentime, the company that makes BTD. She wrote:
"It's hard to imagine a more useful and engrossing programme than Beyond the Darklands…Not only is it world-class in production terms, with skilful winding-in of docu-drama, but it helps viewers to understand the most bewildering questions about some of our most horrific crimes."

Or not. From my perspective, it's hard to imagine a less useful programme, and what I find most engrossing about it is the fact that it’s used in Police training.
Clifton also stated that, 'unlike a lot of professionals, (Latta) doesn't hedge his answers about, or trouble with sensitivities toward, the criminal. He has the self-assertive bluntness to spell out how these individuals come to be so evil."

In other words, he has the courage to say the things others are too scared, or too PC to say. The religious connotations of terms like ‘evil’ and ‘redemption’ are interesting in that they appeal to, and reinforce the view that some people are inherently bad and just have to be kept locked up forever  - or killed.
 Importantly, Clifton didn’t ask how Latta arrived at his assessment of Lundy as a narcissistic, exhibitionist alcoholic who brutally battered his wife to death because of her opposition to his money-making schemes, and who killed his daughter because she was an 'encumbrance'.
 A thorough clinical analysis would involve extensive interviews of the subject, or at least of the professionals who have worked with him, plus meticulous, informed analysis of documentary evidence such as trial transcripts, school and medical records etc. Most of this would need the permission of the subject and various Government agencies. As it’s unlikely Latta had that access, unless he was being fed information unofficially, he’d have based his assessment on the sort of case specific data that’s available to the public.
 Interviews with family and friends are there mainly to back up the assessment, not be the basis of it. Anecdotes provide the all-important personal narratives, and dramatized scenes provide the visual element without which a lot of the target audience would quickly lose interest.
Given the seriousness of the content, ideally the commentator should remind the audience that forensic psychology isn’t an exact science and that an analyst is totally dependent on the quality of information s/he has to work with. S/he should caution the audience that an assessment presented in a 45-minute television programme will not have the precision and thoroughness of a formal clinical analysis. S/he might even clarify the interface and critical differences between forensic psychology and criminal profiling.
One indicator of the rigour of Latta’s analysis is his notion of ‘limb specific grief’. The image that most people will have of Lundy is at the funerals - grief-stricken, with his arms draped over the shoulders of two friends. Latta typified this expression of grief as 'limb specific’, ie the fact that Lundy was able to support himself on his arms proves his grief was phony and is evidence of his guilt.
 The term sounds impressively scientific. It’s not. Physical reactions to extreme emotional distress vary between individuals and may well affect the legs more than the arms.

I did a more in-depth analysis of the BTD episode about Peter Holdem. I concluded that, in relation to impartiality and accuracy, that episode proffered no evidence drawn from recent or current professional assessments; it relied heavily on hearsay and failed to alert viewers to the possibility that some contributors might not be accurate in their recollections; it failed to point out that almost all stories about the subject available to the public contain inaccuracies and are emotive in tone; and it manipulated viewers both with the use of supposition stated as fact, and the use of misleading and highly emotive images.

Reality television should make thinking people ask the questions – whose reality is this, and who benefits from it?
In my view, BTD has a political agenda that is close to that of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. It was no accident that the episode on Holdem came in advance of his parole hearing and that people who have campaigned to keep Holdem in prison were heavily involved in the making of the programme.
I don’t pretend that any of this is easy - doing the socially sensible thing often isn’t.  It’s far easier to label people as ‘evil’, ‘unredeemable’, ‘born bad’. No-one can dispute the fact that there are people who are so dangerous they have to be kept incarcerated. But there are people who have been so damaged in the ‘care’ of the State that they are now unrecoverable – which should make us question the fitness of that ‘care’. And, there are many people in prison who are at risk of becoming unsalvageable, who should not have been sent to prison because they are innocent, or their crimes did not warrant it.

No person of integrity can question the fact that, as a society, we imprison far too many people : more men than women; more young than old; more brown than white; more poor than affluent; more uneducated than educated.
Our incarceration rate and the ethnic and socio-economic profile of our prison population is a national disgrace. Young, poorly educated men of colour end up in prison in NZ at truly alarming rates. In this we follow the USA, which leads the world in both the number of its citizens it imprisons and the proportion of people of colour.

Mark Lundy was lucky to have people who believe enough in the legal principle of beyond all reasonable doubt to have fought his corner. There are many who aren’t so lucky.


  1. This is an excellent analysis of Nigel Latta's attitude. I am thinking of making a complaint about him to the Psychology Board becasue of statements he has made about mark Lundy. Could you contact me please.