Murder on a Sunday Morning: Oscar-Winning Documentary

Subject: Law
Pages: 11
Words: 3140
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD


Murder on a Sunday Morning is a documentary that seeks to reveal the conspicuous problems in the judicial system concerning juveniles accused of criminal offenses. This article identifies various elements of the documentary that relate to forensic psychologists when handling juvenile crimes. Forensic assessment is fundamental to safeguard the juveniles in the legal system, given that their levels of competency to stand trial are relatively low. This film manifests the controversies that can arise when the judicial system underrates the services that forensic teams can provide in the sections of assessment and witness evaluation. Forensic psychology has attracted many definitions, but in this case, emphasis will be on the professional application of psychological knowledge, ethics, and principles to criminal justice undertakings. The application of forensic psychology, as it will be used in this case, involves investigations, analysis, advice to prosecutors and provision of testimony to aid in the criminal justice process.

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Introduction and background

This case study, Murder on a Sunday Morning, involves Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old black boy who is arrested for allegedly killing Mary Stephens while walking along the streets of Jacksonville Florida in May 2000. Butler’s case will be explored to illustrate what is expected of a forensic psychologist while addressing and safeguarding the rights of a juvenile. A deep examination will be done to evaluate the roles and responsibilities of a forensic psychologist along with assessment criteria that should be incorporated when handling juvenile cases. The essence of a witness and a third party will be observed regarding the case study to factor out its impact on the legal system. The case study will depict flaws that exist in the judicial system but, the verdict illustrates that there can be justice if all areas of forensic psychology are addressed fully during the trial. In this case, some forensic details were undermined making it hard to protect the rights of Brenton Butler.

Unlike in the early centuries, the 19th century marked a drastic change in courts across the United States (Archer, 2006). The criminal justice system was designed to deal with adult offenders, as juveniles were handled differently because they were viewed as misguided delinquents who needed advice to transit successfully to adulthood. Psychologists were tasked to determine if the juvenile was a delinquent and what solutions would be offered to help the misguided youth. During the late 1960s following concerns regarding escalated juvenile crimes, the Supreme Court of the United States granted juveniles equal constitutional rights as adults in the legal platform (Kruh & Grisso, 2009). Consequently, juvenile offenders ceased to be seen as misguided delinquents, but offenders who attracted full legal procedures.

The roles of forensic psychologists were adjusted as delinquents were transitioning to adult-like offenders. Following this adjustment, the old narrative of assessing juveniles for delinquency or mental effects was abandoned. Forensic psychologists were obliged with determining juveniles’ competency to face trial, and ability to comply with the law (Christy, Douglas, Otto, & Petrila, 2004). Forensic psychologists were also supposed to determine whether the juvenile qualified to be tried in the adult court system. These adjustments were made following the public outcry that juveniles were perpetrating more violent crimes at a time when the legal system was targeting to eliminate crime.

Roles of a forensic psychology

The roles of forensic psychology are evolving alongside the change in the legal system understanding of juveniles. Currently, juveniles are not assessed for delinquency, since they are seen to be capable of committing more vicious crimes. Forensic psychologists are tasked with ascertaining juveniles’ competency to face trial or understand their rights transcribed in Miranda ruling. Miranda rights emerged after the US Supreme Court passed that suspects be informed of their rights before investigations by police take place (Goldstein & Goldstein, 2010). These rights were meant to avoid self-incrimination following possible police coercion and the right to have an attorney. Butler was detained and interrogated without an attorney; this enabled coercion by the police to force self-incrimination. If Butler’s case would have involved a forensic psychologist, there are aspects of forensic results that would have stopped Butler from remaining in jail for six months. For instance, Butler’s competency to stand trial would have been in question. His understanding of Miranda rights might have been ruled lacking by forensic psychology since he was young and had no records of involvement with the law.

Forensic assessment principles

The topic of forensic assessment is still in debate as analysts are yet to agree whether juveniles should be assessed on grounds of their level of maturity or based on the standards transcribed in the Dusky Standard. Dusky Standard includes guidelines laid by the US Supreme Court to give the offender the right to undergo a competency evaluation before facing trial (Goldstein & Goldstein, 2010). Existing research indicates that juveniles are still developing their cognitive and reasoning capabilities, and thus they should be assessed according to their level of understanding rather than using the Dusky Standard. However, despite the criteria used, forensic psychologists must use assessments that precisely measure the offender’s cognitive abilities, ability to understand legal and court processes.

In Butler’s case, if competency to face trial was gauged and he was determined incompetent, and then Butler might have faced much trouble than it was in jail for six months. Besides, as expected, Butler would be subjected to treatment until he was confirmed competent to face trial. Even though Butler would have been treated for competency on an outpatient basis, this move would be devastating for him over years of waiting to stand trial. Since Butler had not committed the offense, it would have been unfair and a sign of incompetence in the legal system.

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Additionally, the client who is assessed influences the kind of assessment to take place. In court, forensic psychology works in line with the law to establish the mental status of the suspect to stand trial. The final report might depend on which party the forensic psychology is working for, and also the criteria of assessment. For instance, if the forensic psychologist is working with the alleged offender, the focus might aim at holding the individual in the juvenile court where the goal is to assist and guide the misguided youth. On the other hand, if the forensic psychologist is interested in the prosecution side, the procedure might concentrate on the weight of the offense and the viciousness of the offender. This assessment criterion might lead to the offender’s movement to the adult court system so as to facilitate the punishment of the offender regarding the law.

Third party involvement

The bulk of information for forensic analysis is expected to emanate from the suspect. Nonetheless, the involvement of a third party is fundamental, and it should be factored in the assessment (Ryba, Brodsky, & Shlosberg, 2007). The public defender that helped Butler used the mother as a testimonial for her son’s behavior. This approach identified loopholes in the prosecution’s case. The mother testified on behalf of her son that he never had psychological challenges and his behavior never indicated traits of a troubled young male. Even though the information given by the mother as a third party was minimal, it was intense given that she presented it before the court. Besides, sometimes the suspect is anxious and overwhelmed making it hard to give much information about the self. This extra information is obtained from a third party. As shown in the film, Butler was often quite and made short replies to questions. Without a third party, the forensic psychologist would source little information to write a report for the court.

Additionally, a doctor testified in the court that Butler had sustained injuries from police coercion during the investigation. If it were for Butler alone, such information could not have been obtained thus jeopardizing his chances towards justice. The forensic psychologist utilizes this information to report these results to the legal system as third-party revelations. The evidence from the doctor provides certainty on how the injuries were sustained. In this case, if a forensic psychologist was present, s/he would have reported with clarity due to the clinical information presented by the third party. The fact that Butler was forced to self-incriminate by the police interrogating him provides enough evidence as to why third-party information can turn events around for the accused.

Ethical and multicultural issues

The multicultural factor arising from this case is that Butler’s implication was merely based on racial profiling. Butler was a young innocent black male in the right place at the wrong time. For a long time being black in the United States was a pretext commonly used for incriminating blacks for false offenses (Cutler & Zapf, 2015). The police did not want to toil searching for the offender as described to them by Mary Ann’s husband. The police used racial profiling to implicate Butler for the offense. Butler is described as shorter and younger compared to the man described to the police, yet they used racial profiling as a shortcut to pick Butler. As events rolled out, this aspect turned out to be of use to the defense attorney. The forensic psychologist could have had the advantage to showcase how similar events of racial profiling have been used in the legal system across the United States.

The issue of white supremacy also arises. The way the police responded fast to the case and how events turned out, it is obvious to suggest that it was because the case involved a white versus a black. If the case would have involved two white people, perhaps the prosecution process would have been more cautious. Contrary, if an individual from the black race were offended, maybe the case would not have been considered. This case shows that the police are willing to lie to inculpate the black race and preserve white dominance at all costs. However, with determined forensic psychologists who are not ready to flinch, but fight the blatant lies in the court system, racial equality can be achieved.

The issue of ethical considerations is hugely dented in this case. From this film, it is clear not all police are trustworthy, some are ruthless, forced information is just some of the evidence a prosecutor may rely on thus not all investigations are credible. These intended loopholes in the criminal justice system reveal huge disrespect to the code of ethics of professionals. If work ethics cannot protect the rights of a young black male, this manifests institutional racism that is more damaging than any other crime in the US.

On the other hand, ethical issues emanating from the relationship between the client and forensic psychology also have been raised. For instance, conflicts of interest between the client and the prosecution can put the integrity of the forensic psychologist in question (Ryba et al., 2007). The tension between ruling the juvenile as incompetent and protecting him from adult court system may conflict with the intentions of the prosecutor to punish the juvenile per the adult court system.

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To avoid these tensions, the forensic psychologist has to ensure that s/he makes unbiased decisions. The credibility of forensic analysis will highly depend on the availability of third-party information. For the case of Butler, it would have been easy to avoid conflict of interest since it was clear from the doctor’s evidence that the police work was unreliable. Additionally, forensic psychologists should ensure they employ assessment tools to ensure incompetent juveniles are protected from the legal system that might exploit them with the adult criminal system.

Forensic considerations

Following the viciousness of the juvenile offenses committed recently, there was no doubt about reexamining the rules of the juvenile court (Bartol & Bartol, 2008). The rules have changed to resemble those applied in the adult courts. Some of the cases committed by juveniles are violent enough to qualify for adult court proceedings. Therefore, sending a juvenile to an adult court and jails has become legal. Forensic considerations for Butler’s case could have automatically warranted his prosecution in the adult court and if found guilty detainment in the adult prisons would follow. Butler’s age and the weight of the crime were enough to prosecute him in the adult court system.

Court considerations

Butler is a young male whose cognitive development is still ongoing; furthermore, he is of the black race and might feel responsible for offenses implicated against him. However, the court should consider the age and maturity of the defendant and the implications of the interrogation process. Butler was too young for the police to presume that he is aware of neither the interrogation process nor his rights regarding this case. The court should understand that Butler having never been involved in a police case would be hard for him to defend himself, and this incompetency was utilized by the police to pin him down. Moreover, the injuries sustained from the police beatings could not be overlooked, since there was evidence from a doctor to back up these claims. The fact that the written confession was availed after a series of interrogations should put into question the validity of the statement since it was not issued on free will.

Forensic assessment tools

The assessment necessary for this case would have been an assessment of Butler’s competency to face trial, ability to give up his rights as stipulated in the Miranda rights and screening for possible mental complications. A forensic psychologist would have helped define the appropriate assessment tools for juveniles. Additionally, the forensic psychologist would be tasked with a more technical role of showing that the eyewitness testimony was flawed. Since Butler is facing trial in an adult court system, the application of an adult forensic tool can be adapted. The use of ECST-R would have been appropriate. This tool was developed and designed in line with the Dusky Standards (Rogers, Tillbrook, & Sewell, 2004). The test was tailored to determine if, for instance, Butler would understand the interrogation process, proceedings of the court and his attorney. This test would also indicate whether Butler suffered from any mental illness.

Another tool that would have a meaningful impact on Butler’s case is the tool for gauging understanding and acknowledgment of Miranda rights designed by DR. Grisso. According to Goldstein, Condie, Kalbeitzer, Osman, and Geier (2003), this test is used by forensic psychologists to measure individual’s ability to recognize and give up their Miranda rights in a legal proceeding. If this test had been used in the Butler’s case, he would have avoided the injuries he sustained during the questioning by the police.

Nature of the forensic report

The nature of the forensic report depends on what the law requires of a particular case. There are no stipulated standards to measure competency examination on juveniles (Cutler & Zapf, 2015). Due to the lack of set standards, there can be enormous variations in the reports issued by a forensic psychologist. For example, Florida law, where this case is based, expects the test to offer necessary information on the competency and be indicated in the reports. The case of Butler does not involve any forensic reports. This case should have been more credible if competency tests were considered before Butler faced trial. Besides, forensic reports should indicate whether the alleged offender qualifies to waive his/her Miranda rights such as having an attorney before any interrogations can take place.

The element of competency and ability to waive the Miranda rights stands out as the most relevant for assessing juvenile crimes (Viljoen & Roesch, 2005). If Butler had been examined using the earlier mentioned tools, it would reveal that Butler would have avoided talking to the police if he was aware of his rights to have a lawyer. Besides, the test would show that Butler was under duress when he signed the false confession written by the police. This information would have helped Butler avoid detainment for six months. The report should have also indicated the possibility of Butler suffering from inferiority complex given that racial discrimination against the blacks was rife at the time of the accusation.

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If Butler’s case were covered by a forensic psychologist and handed to the court for consideration, the court would have factored Butler’s age and his incompetency with the law process as factors necessary addressing for him to face trial in an adult court. Besides, the assessment of his ability to waive Miranda rights would have given the court a second thought before trying him for the case. Based on the medical evidence that Butler was under duress to bend to police demands to self-incriminate, the court would have used this as a validation to avoid prosecuting Butler. In this regard, the criminal justice process in Florida should consider that juveniles facing trial in court be examined for their understanding of the law as well as their competency to face trial. Since the tools for assessment of the juveniles were designed to test adult offenders, considerations should be made while judging the juveniles because their cognitive abilities are still developing.

According to Viljoen and Roesch (2005), assessment of minors would mark a great milestone towards offering them appropriate prosecution under the law. For Butler’s case, the court could have avoided all these procedures since the police work undermined so many rules that the prosecution chamber hardly had a chance to go on with the prosecution. Perhaps the police had the notion that white supremacy would thrive by all means. However, this was not the case as it turned out that the law was inevitable. The public defenders were determined as well as the jury was sober enough to see the shortcuts used by the police. Moreover, Butler’s case has implications beyond the injustices he went through in the hands of the police. This case unearths institutional discrimination and dishonesty by some public servants. For instance, the police taint the name of the legal system. This mischievous behavior degrades the reputation and goal of the legal system to eradicate crime.


The film is a clear manifestation as to why there has to be a forensic assessment for cases involving juveniles. The fact that this event happened a decade ago does not justify that things have changed with the evolution of the criminal justice system. Despite the prevalence of vicious crimes committed by juveniles, it is their right to be safeguarded from the legal system because they are still developing mentally. Furthermore, given that the assessment tools are designed for adult people, it is essential to introduce measures that protect juveniles from exploitation by the adult-tailored system. The way Butler escaped death sentence through the assistance of the two public defenders presents a rare case that not many juvenile offenders may be lucky to have. Since not all juveniles convicted of violent offenses can be assured of similar services to protect them, forensic psychologists should stand firm to fill this gap.


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