West Tennessee Forensic Services


West TN Forensic Services (WTFS) is a Forensic evaluation program. We provide Forensic Evaluations and Expert Testimony for the Criminal Courts in Shelby County. We receive Court Orders from Criminal Court Judges and General Sessions Court Judges in Shelby County. The Forensic Team serves as "friends of the court." We do not take "sides" in the court process; instead we complete our evaluation and then report the findings to the Judge who ordered the evaluation, with copies of the letters sent to the attorneys who are handling the case (the Prosecutor and the Defense Attorney). The determination of Competence to Stand Trial (Comp) and Mental Condition at the Time of the Alleged Offense (MCAT) is a conclusion made by the trier of fact (either the Judge or the Jury). WTFS must receive an order from the assigned judge to complete a forensic evaluation. The court directs WTFS to address either Comp and/or MCAT. Once the team member completes the forensic evaluation, recommendations about our opinions regarding Comp and MCAT are provided to the court.

The Forensic Evaluation Process begins when the defendant is informed about the limits of confidentiality. This means that there is no confidentiality, everything the defendant tells us is available to the Court. We ask the defendant to explain back to us what they understood us to say. When we are confident that the defendant understands the limits of confidentiality we begin the evaluation process.

Social History And Mental Status Exam (MSE)

Every defendant who is evaluated is asked to provide basic demographic information (such as sex, race, age, and social security number). The defendant is also asked to provide other social history information, including early family information, education, employment, marital and family information, medical condition, mental health history and/or current status, criminal justice involvement, military information, etc. According to TDMHSAS the goal of data collection is to gather pertinent information so that it is possible to provide an accurate portrayal of the defendant.

The MSE is a crucial step in the Forensic Evaluation Process. In order to apply criteria to answer the Courts' questions, we must first determine if the defendant has a mental disease or defect. We make this determination based on a differential diagnosis with the established criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Competency To Stand Trial (COMP)

A Competency Evaluation is concerned with the here and now. Throughout the evaluation the team's job is to determine if the defendant suffers from any mental disease or defect (i.e.: mental illness or developmental disability). If the defendant does not have a diagnosable mental disorder then from our perspective, they can be returned to court with a recommendation that they be considered competent. The competency evaluation addresses whether the defendant understands the nature of the legal process, whether the defendant understands the criminal charges and the potential consequences of the criminal charges, and finally whether the defendant can confer with their attorney and participates in the defense.

Defendants who have a mental disease or defect, or cannot be diagnosed with confidence, and do not meet competency criteria are considered of questionable competency or incompetent. Also in this group are defendants that we assert need additional evaluation and/or treatment to attain competency. Defendants who are considered of questionable competence or incompetent are referred for additional services.

One way to address this issue is to refer the defendant to another WTFS Team member for formal psychological assessment with standardized psychological tests.

Another method to address a case with a defendant considered of questionable competence or incompetent is to provide the defendant with Competency Training. Any WTFS clinician with appropriate experience can conduct Competency Training. The Competency Training involves working with the defendant in areas that they do not have a minimum level of knowledge or the defendant is not able to relate with the attorney in an appropriate manner due to mental illness. The goal of competency training is to assist the defendant in reaching criteria for a finding of competence. When the Competency Training is completed, the defendant is referred back to the team member who made the request for additional services. The defendant is re-evaluated by that team member to determine if they now meet criteria for a recommendation that the defendant be considered COMP.

An additional method available to the Forensic Team is the jail mental health staff. Since WTFS provides evaluation services we do not get involved with treatment for our defendants. This allows the WTFS clinical staff the opportunity to stay in the role of the evaluator vs. the treatment provider who is typically considered an advocate for the treatment client. We refer defendants to the jail mental health staff for treatment (in most cases medication is the treatment available). At an appropriate time after treatment is started, we re-evaluate the defendant to address COMP.

When the determination regarding Diagnostic Formulation and/or COMP cannot be settled, the defendant is referred to a Mental Health Institute (MMHI or FSP at MTMHI) for further evaluation and treatment if deemed necessary. The decision of which institute to send the defendant to is based on TDMHSAS criteria. If the defendant is considered dangerous and/or an escape risk then the defendant is sent to FSP. If the defendant does not meet the criteria for a referral to FSP, the defendant is sent to the nearest mental health institute (in Shelby County the defendant is referred to MMHI).

Mental Condition At The Time Of The Alleged Offense (MCAT)

The MCAT evaluation provides the court with a recommendation about the assigned psychologist's opinion regarding the defendant's sanity at the time of the alleged offense. This evaluation is a retrospective one. The MCAT evaluation requires the psychologist to complete differential diagnosis and then apply the MCAT criteria to make a determination and recommendation to the Court. The MCAT criteria require the defendant to be diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Next, the forensic evaluator addresses whether at the time of the alleged offense if, as a result of the severe mental illness, the defendant could or could not appreciate the nature and/or wrongfulness of their behavior. This evaluation requires the psychologist to learn as much as possible about the defendant's behavior at the time of the offense. This is accomplished through interviews of the defendant, collateral interviews (both witnesses to the crime and others who have knowledge about the defendant), psychological testing results, police reports, hospital records, mental health treatment records, etc. When needed, a referral to the jail mental health staff or to a Mental Health Institute can be used to assist in completion of the MCAT evaluation.

Expert Testimony

Given our large caseload (we see approximately 900 defendants a year) it is of interest to note that we are not called to Court very often. Typically, the Court, the Prosecutor and the Defense Attorney have confidence in our abilities to provide high quality forensic services. They accept our opinions/recommendations that we provide in our "report" (letter to the court). When asked or subpoenaed to Court, it is the team member's responsibility to contact the appropriate attorney and prepare for testimony. Once in court we "take Oath" and tell the truth. Typically the expert testimony is provided to the Judge in a Competency Hearing or to the trier of fact (Judge and/or Jury) in a trial regarding MCAT.