Victims of violent crime are too often studied as stereotypical groups rather than as complex individuals. Investigators are too often pressured to accept or question victim statements based on emotional and political considerations. And worse, the justice system treats many victims as mere witnesses for the prosecution, rating their character with subjective moral standards, rather than perceiving them as real people who have suffered harm and need help. The result is less informed research, less informed investigations, and less informed legal outcomes. So argues the new textbook Forensic Victimology (Elsevier Science, 2009) coauthored by forensic scientist and criminal profiler Brent Turvey of Alaska, and Wayne Petherick, PhD, an Associate Professor of Criminology at Bond University on the Gold Coast, Australia.
In part, the current state of academic affairs has to do with the way that different victim groups are regarded by the police and courts, and then researched and taught by theoretical criminologists. There is a tendency to avoid asking tough questions of culturally sympathetic victims, such as those who have been raped, and a desire to punish others who may be regarded as immoral or complicit, such as drug addicts and prostitutes, Dr. Petherick explains.
“Victimology, which is a sub-discipline of criminology, is meant to be the scientific study of victims. But it is taught at university almost exclusively through a narrow lens that involves feminist and restorative perspectives bundled with less than reliable victim crime data,” states Dr. Petherick. “Unfortunately, too many lecturers are there to push a particular agenda or ideology when neutrality is what’s needed. That tends to put a lot of our best students off. It’s at best naive and at worst politicized. This needs to change.”
Turvey agrees. “Science is skeptical. It asks questions. And it assumes nothing. Lose the freedom to doubt and we lose our ability to understand problems, let alone solve them,” he explains.
Turvey, a court qualified forensic expert who has worked rape and homicide cases for law enforcement and attorneys since the mid 1990s, sees the current landscape of victimology as one overpopulated with advocates – some by job title and some by way of personal philosophy. “It seems as though much of victimology has become the property of those with social and even political agendas. There is more to victimology than that – substantially more.”
For Turvey and those like him, victim study is not about broad or obscure theory; it is applied and specific – a necessary component of investigating violent crime. “My job is to figure out what happened and why. That means getting the facts. And that means asking tough questions to victims and about victims in every case – no matter what. My experience has been that politics and personal beliefs immediately get in the way of that.”
For more than ten years, Petherick and Turvey have collaborated on casework and teaching projects in both the United States and Australia. In their work, they have repeatedly been confronted by the same types of problems with respect to victims of crime: some witnesses lie about victims, some victims lie about what happened to them, and some people lie about being victims. And that’s when victim evidence is collected at all. In the current culture, the way that victims are investigated and studied, it is difficult to address this without offending someone – whether it be the victim, a victim’s advocate, an investigator, an attorney, or a judge.
They came to realize that the solution to these problems was already there, if buried beneath competing agendas. The solution was to reboot victimology as a truly scientific study with investigative and forensic implications.
Forensic Victimology as a field is defined by the authors as the scientific study of victims for the purposes of addressing investigative and forensic issues. It involves the skeptical investigation of facts and a thorough examination of the evidence. Forensic victimology, explains Turvey, provides a scientific balance against the idealization or demonization of victims, a filter for deception and false reporting, and the means for identifying a threshold of relevance for victim information and opinions already at work in the criminal justice system.
They write: “the forensic victimologist is best conceived as an objective, dispassionate, and above all scientific examiner. They are critical and skeptical, and they put the establishment of fact before politics or any other consideration. To that end, they take nothing for granted, look for corroboration of any alleged victim’s statements, seek out collateral sources of information, and investigate alternate or contributing motives for victim behavior. Most importantly, the forensic victimologist is barred from assuming that alleged victims must have been victimized. For their purposes, victimity must be established unequivocally and may not be asserted simply for ideological purposes. They investigate as scientists, they report as educators, and they understand the gravity of their eventual courtroom testimony.”
The result of their work and research is a colloborative textbook, Forensic Victimology, published in October of 2008 by Elsevier Science out of San Diego, California, with chapters contributed by a range of professionals whose work involves interpreting victim evidence. “It gives students basic methodology, and professional victimologists the permission to think, teach, and act like scientists,” explains Turvey. Dr. Petherick goes further, arguing “It moves victimology from the theoretical study of victim groups through the lens of radical agendas to an applied scientific discipline that helps solve crime and resolve legal questions. It is where criminology needs to be.”