Dusting Minds for Fingerprints
In an episode of Netflix's "I Am a Killer," Dr. John Edens was featured as an expert informer.
This article originally appeared in The Battalion on September 21, 2022.
Written by Neha Gopal
Photo by Madeline Tesch
In the third season of Netflix’s critically acclaimed documentary series, “I Am a Killer,” forensic expert and Texas A&M psychological and brain sciences professor John Edens, Ph.D., joined the show to examine convicted murderer Derly Madison. In the series, forensic examiners like Edens paint vivid pictures of crime by exploring every detail until the entire story is told. As Edens dusts the murderer’s mind for fingerprints, he reveals unparalleled insight into the distorted mind of a condemned killer.
Due to Edens’ expertise in psychopathic, personality-related disorders, stacks of mental health records are constantly landing on his desk for verification and interpretation. Regarding capital murder cases, Edens often encounters experts who make unsubstantiated claims in order to prove someone is a psychopath.
“I’m asked oftentimes to rebut that information because psychopath diagnoses in capital murder trials are just wildly unreliable,” Edens said. “I’m oftentimes asked to testify about that stuff as well.”
As Netflix producers sought Edens’ opinion on the murder case, the professor realized his appearance on the show was a unique opportunity to educate his media psychology class.
“I agreed to do it because I was teaching my media psychology class that semester,” Edens said. “We talked a lot about AP-LS [American Psychology-Law Society] and how psychologists can try to do things to educate the public about mental health issues.”
In addition to Edens, other Aggies have made appearances in this same TV show.
“[Netflix] came to campus and filmed me doing a mock class as part of their set-up,” Edens said. “This was all volunteer, and my media class also volunteered to hang around and get tape having an extra class.”
Other than a few caveats, Edens said working with Netflix producers was a positive experience.
“I mean, as a production company with a contract with Netflix — anytime you take three hours of me talking and cut that down to three or five minutes of the key points — they want to fit it with the narrative they were going for,” Edens said.
The resulting portrayal of Edens was sympathetic, but Edens recognized the depiction came at the expense of nuance.
“If I had a magic wand and could present the information that I wanted, it would have been different in terms of what I thought was most important, but overall, I think it was a positive experience.”
As Edens points out, the reality of forensic psychology is often sacrificed in favor of sensationalism when it comes to the portrayal of the field in television series like “Criminal Minds” or “Law & Order.” Edens said inflated reality TV doctor shows, like that of Dr. Phil, are disheartening.
“’Dr. Phil’s’ a whole different ball of wax,” Edens said. “For psychologists, there are ethics that we’re supposed to follow in terms of what we’re willing to say. We’re supposed to be sanctimonious, do-gooders and not do things for self-serving purposes … When I see people going on TV and doing psychological profiles of Meghan Markel and Prince Harry — doing stuff that is pretty clearly unethical, but the more inflammatory and sensationalist it is, the better. It’s depressing.”
Licensed forensic examiner Michael George Ditsky, Ph.D., a private practice owner in Sugar Land, said Hollywood depictions and the forensic psychology field were far from mirror images.
“Anything that people don’t experience firsthand, I think, becomes sensationalized,” Ditsky said. “I have actually been in a courtroom where a judge instructs the jury and tells them that this is not like television — that their role is not like [the show] ‘CSI’ or something that you see in ‘Law &Order.’
“We forensic psychologists lose because the general audiences of such shows think that we have this special mindset that we can develop conclusions very accurately and succinctly in a matter of minutes.”
Ditsky said in preparation for capital murder cases, forensic psychologists will spend months accumulating trial evidence.
“I had a case recently, capital murder, that I had to read thousands of pages of documentation to make sure that my conclusion was credible and accurate to a jury,” Ditsky said.
Ditsky said he encourages and believes in the realistic depictions shown in documentaries like “I Am a Killer.”
“It gives a professional spin on subjects often maligned or mistreated by other media,” Ditsky said. “So I’m very much in favor of that.”
In contrast, clinical forensic psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Florida, Stephen DeLeonardis, believes audiences should know the difference between forensic psychology and entertainment.
“Forensic psychology is answering the referral question by being fair and impartial. This does not make for good TV or news reporting,” DeLeonardis said. “I think [these shows] punch up the ‘cool’ stuff and disregard the ‘boring,’ which does not paint an accurate picture of forensic psychology.”
Most forensic psychology work is not witty one-liners or charming, broody dialogue, but what DeLeonardis describes as “lots of record review.”
“It is lots of reading and research followed by a potential full day of testing — depending on the referral question — maybe an interview if the examinee agrees or is cooperative and then writing up the report,” DeLeonardis said.
Edens said while the resurgence of interest in real-life murders in documentaries offers plenty of educational opportunities, he understands that entertainment value is fundamental for success in media.
“Much of what I see getting presented about mental health issues and prison inmates is so sensationalized,” Edens said. “[But] I get it, that’s how you get clicks … Nobody wants to watch a show called ‘I Am a Shoplifter.’ People are [there] for the drama and the conflict.”
Unlike most true crime series, “I Am a Killer” doesn’t have a whodunnit element — the murderer is already sentenced to life imprisonment or death. “Good” forensic psychologists that Edens described in his class can bring their expertise to get to the most objective truth.
According to Edens, documentaries on crime have the potential to offer alternate perspectives. Rather than simply focusing on crimes, these shows give murderers in the series some agency over their narrative. Overall, Edens said he had a positive experience while contributing to the show.
“I would do it again if [Netflix] came and said, ‘There’s another case we’d like your expertise on,’ I would do it again,” Edens said.
The unique abilities of forensic psychologists make them exceptional contributors in educating unparalleled insights into the minds and motivations of these real-life murderers, and according to Edens, the field is only growing.
“Whether it’s applied stuff, like real-world cases, or even doing research, to me, is fascinating,” Edens said. “We develop things to identify whether people are going to be violent or not, and those things get used in real-world cases … Forensic psychology is a really interesting area, there’s a lot of potential and it’s not going away anytime soon.”