Court Cases

Page by Sarah Dye

The court cases discussed on this page were necessary steps for the formation and recognition of forensic psychology.

State Vs. Driver 1921

The first published case in which a psychologist was an expert witness was the case of State v. Driver in 1921. It is important to note however that this was not the first time a psychologist had been an expert witness. It is impossible to say when the first case was because of a lack of available records.  Unfortunately for the world of psychology the psychologist’s testimony was ultimately rejected in this case. Soon though in the 1940’s psychologists being used as expert witnesses was increasing. This is not to say that they were readily accepted though, there was still a large amount of doubt in the legal community to the application of psychology in the courtroom.

Frye Vs the United States 1923

Frye versus the United States set the standard for the acceptance of expert testimony in federal courts. The case was heard in 1923 and the outcome was what is known today as the Frye Standard.

“Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and demonstrable stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well-recognized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.”- Van Orsdel, Associate Justice

This case was a huge step in the effort to incorporate psychology and law.

People Vs. Hawthrone 1940

In the case of the People Vs. Hawthrone, tried in Michigan. The case was about a man who had killed his wife, and was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. The trail court refused to allow a psychologist with a PhD to be an expert witness in the case.  This issue ended up in the Supreme Court of Michigan where it was determined that the trail court should have accepted the psychologist as an expert witness. They ultimately ruled that the criteria for being an expert witness should not be based on whether or not the person had a medical degree. The bases for qualifying an expert witness should be their depth of knowledge in a particular area. This ruling created some controversy however in that many people believe that in order to testify about something like insanity, which they considered to be a disease, a person needed a medical degree.

Hidden Vs Mutual Life Insurance Company Co. 1954

This cases is very similar to the People Vs. Hawthrone, the main difference being that this is a civil case. The plaintiff was suing his insurance company for benefits. He claimed that they should be giving him disability benefits because he had a disabling nervous condition which prevented him from having a steady source of income because he could not work. A clinical psychologist performed projective testing on the man, and testified in court about his condition. In testifying the psychologist stated that the man qualified to be given the disability benefits. At this point the defense objected, and the judge told the jury to disregard the entire testimony of the psychologist on the basis that he was stating his opinion. Later in a court of appeals it was ruled that the clinical psychologist’s testimony should have been admissible in the trial and that the psychologist was an expert witness.

Jenkins Vs United States 1962

The court of appeals in D.C. ruled in support to psychologists being used as expert witnesses when mental illnesses are concerned. The court was very divided on this ruling. None the less, their ruling became the dominate one concerning psychologists as expert witnesses in the matter of mental illness. Following this example many other courts, federal and local, began to accept the use of psychologists more willingly.


Law Library- American Law and Legal Information. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2010, from Law Library- American Law and Legal Information:

Weiner, I. B., & Hess, A. K. (2006). THe Handbook of Forensic Pyschology Third Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

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