Shrink Rap News

Use of Psychological Profile to Infer Ivins's Guilt Is Problematic


In March, a panel chaired by Dr. Gregory Saathoff, commonly known as the expert behavioral analysis panel (EBAP), released a report containing a summary and analysis of the investigation of Dr. Bruce Ivins, the suspected anthrax mailer. (1) The panel was convened at the request of the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court, Royce C. Lamberth. The full report containing Dr. Ivins’s previously confidential and sealed medical information is being sold online by the Research Strategies Network, a non-profit organization that consults to the Department of Defense and whose president is Dr. Saathoff.(2) After reading the redacted executive summary, I felt compelled to review the work of the panel in light of standards set forth in the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law’s Ethical Guidelines for the Practice of Forensic Psychiatry.(3)

Although the panel undertook the investigation with “no predispositions with regard to [Dr. Ivins’s] guilt or innocence and in fact without a focus on that issue,” it nevertheless concluded that Dr. Ivins was the anthrax mailer. Dr. Ivins’s guilt has never been established in a court of law since he committed suicide in August 2008 and was never charged with the deaths of the five anthrax victims. This pronouncement of guilt is not consistent with the ethics and traditional practice of forensic psychiatry. Ethical guidelines state that forensic psychiatrists should: “...communicate the honesty of their distinguishing, to the extent possible, between verified and unverified information as well as among clinical ‘facts,’ ‘inferences, and ‘impressions.’ ” The panel report concluded guilt based upon “considerable circumstantial evidence” found in the medical records without acknowledging that this conclusion was based on psychodynamic inference. Specifically, the report found that Ivins had the “psychological disposition,” motive, means and the “behavioral history” to carry out the attacks. The use of a psychological profile to infer guilt is particularly problematic, since this evidence is not admissible in most jurisdictions. Bioterrorist profiles are likely more unreliable than most given the paucity of subjects upon which to base a profile.

From an ethical standpoint, the sale of the panel report is particularly problematic. Forensic reports are generated at the request of the retaining agency or individual, and the information in the report is usually not distributed beyond the parties immediately involved in the proceedings. The forensic evaluator himself does not typically distribute a report to non-involved individuals, nor does the evaluator sell the report to the public. While Dr. Ivins signed several releases of information during the course of his career, it is unlikely that he could have foreseen or given knowing consent to worldwide sale of his medical information. The panel report details Dr. Ivins’s social awkwardness and eccentricities, romantic rebuffs, and early childhood abuse while making careful note that his early abuse did not “exonerate” him for the criminal acts of which he is presumed guilty.

Although the investigation was requested by the court, the panel’s work product was intended to benefit national security investigators. According to the website of the Research Strategies Network, which organized the panel, the RSN has previously collaborated with the F.B.I. and the Department of Defense. This creates an appearance of conflict of interest and bias, a common problem among mental health professionals who consult with law enforcement agencies. Psychologists who consult with law enforcement have ethical guidelines that caution against these dual agency roles due to the risk of unintended bias and the danger of distortion when forming an opinion.

Although the majority of the expert behavioral analysts on the panel are not board-certified forensic psychiatrists, standard practices and ethical guidelines still apply. Many people who read the report will be struck by Dr. Ivins’s distasteful traits and behaviors, and some may be convinced of his guilt. This should not detract from the larger issue of the proper role and duties of psychiatrists in such investigations.

1. Executive summary of the expert behavioral analysis panel. Accessed at on June 5, 2011

2. The Amerithrax case: report of the expert behavioral analysis panel. Accessed at on June 14, 2011

3. American Academy of Psychiatry and Law. Ethics guidelines for the practice of forensic psychiatry. Accessed at on June 17, 2011

Dr. Annette Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson's employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.

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