Arizona forensic psychologist's rise to fame - East Valley Tribune: News

Arizona forensic psychologist's rise to fame

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Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008 5:53 pm | Updated: 9:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Erin Spiers has worked in places most people try to avoid. Her clients range from those who are completely normal to the criminally insane.

Erin Spiers has worked in places most people try to avoid.

Her clients range from those who are completely normal to the criminally insane.

In her first job after graduating from Arizona State University in 1992, Spiers, a Scottsdale resident, was a caseworker to the mentally ill in Maricopa County.

She later worked as an intern in the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, facilitating therapy groups for committed patients.

As a psychologist for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville prison, Spiers would cross a prison yard in Huntsville, Texas to get to her office inside the prison, and once was held hostage there by an inmate wielding two knives.

Spiers is a forensic psychologist, and has become a national expert in the field over the last 15 years. It’s a profession that applies psychological knowledge to the crime-solving process within the criminal justice system.

Despite a darker side to the profession — often those in the field are called upon to conduct psychological evaluations of murderers, rapists, various other offenders and victims — Spiers said there never has been a time she has wanted to change careers.

“A lot of people say those who go into the mental health field are crazy themselves,” she said. “I would say there is some truth to that ...”

“It is my passion,” Spiers said of her career. “It is a powerful responsibility that can’t be taken lightly. There are inherent dangers in the job — when you get in trouble is when you forget that.”

NATIONAL PROFILE

In addition to working behind the scenes of local criminal investigations, Spiers also has played a key role on renown forensic teams, which evaluated incidents that impacted the nation: The Columbine High School massacre and the Kobe Bryant rape case.

She also was part of a task force and played a minor role in helping the Phoenix Police Department investigative leads in the Baseline Killer case linked to Mark Goudeau.

“Every case leaves it mark, some more than others,” Spiers said. “You’re dealing with people who are going through a life-changing or major event in their lives.”

Spiers, who holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, as well as a doctorate in psychology, works for Steven Pitt and Associates in Scottsdale, a company that has worked on many local and national cases, including the JonBenet Ramsey case.

For Pitt’s firm, Spiers works as a consultant for the Phoenix Police Department’s homicide unit, lawyers defending their clients and prosecutors pushing to put offenders behind bars.

Spiers is quick to say she is not an advocate for the outcome of the defense or prosecution.

“Independence is the hallmark of my job,” Spiers said. “My role demands the integrity to say, ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘I can’t say that.’ No matter how strongly you feel, you have to remain independent. I have to be able to look in the mirror and know that my opinion would be the same no matter what side hired me.”

Spiers also operates a small clinical practice, and is involved in civil litigation cases such as evaluating a victim’s emotional harm. For example, she testifies to the degree a victim in a domestic violence case was emotionally damaged, or the emotional state of someone who was wrongly terminated.

MAINSTREAM

Transforming from an era when a forensic psychologist was considered a hindrance or a quack to a criminal investigation, the playing field has changed.

Forensic psychologists now often work side-by-side with seasoned detectives to evaluate one’s mental state leading up to, and in the aftermath, of a crime.

Jack Ballentine, who retired from the Phoenix Police Department after 30 years, the last eight of which were spent in the homicide unit, has worked with Spiers and said he supports working with forensic psychologists.

“For police officers learning how to become investigators, forensic psychologists can help give them another avenue of questioning through interviewing techniques and personality traits, so things aren’t just black and white,” said Ballentine, who now is the director of the Phoenix Fire Department’s Investigations Unit.

Spiers said in order to deal with some of the material she has to review as part of her job such as looking through homicide photos, she compartmentalizes and shuts down her emotions, but not completely.

Her eyes teared up and she shook her head when she talked about a woman she firmly believes should not have been sent to prison who was present when a man was murdered during a drug deal about two years ago.

“You don’t want to lose all of your humanity. You would not be able to be a good psychologist if you did,” Spiers said.

The opinion of a forensic psychologist can sway a jury, help or sink an attorney’s case and provide detectives with observations of behavior that might have been overlooked during an investigation.

Not to be confused with a profiler, Spiers also determines someone’s mental state at the time of the offense, leading up to it and following it. She retraces the path of an offender by talking to police officers at the scene of a crime, the victims themselves and to the offenders.

Spiers will go as far to ask an offender what they ate for breakfast the morning they committed a crime.

“Behavior is critical,” Spiers said. “What you do and how you act is what completes the picture. I want somebody to walk me through every minute of their day. You never know where in that conversation a critical piece of information is going to come.”

Psychological evaluations and opinions also are formulated after wading through stacks of notebooks and folders containing hundreds of documents Spiers said she reads. The documents include an individual’s criminal history, court records, medical history, mental health records, educational records, and even employment records obtained by lawyers through subpoenas and court orders.

Sometimes after attorneys realize that an evaluation isn’t going to help their case, they say “Thank you very much, and move on to someone else,” she said.

Joel Dvoskin, a leading national forensic psychologist based in Tucson, is one of Spiers’ mentors.

“I’ve seen her tell the truth when it hurts her interests,” he said.

Sometimes the opinions forensic psychologists provide during court proceedings do not fly well in the face of judges or attorneys on the opposing side of a case. “At times, it’s a blood sport,” Pitt said.

In May, Spiers was among a group of people who testified in the Maricopa County Superior Court sentencing of former Paradise Valley High School English teacher Jennifer Mally. Mally, 27, was convicted of three counts of sexual conduct with a minor. She had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.

Spiers conducted a six-hour psychological evaluation on Mally, and determined Mally’s interpersonal level was equivalent to someone in their mid-teens, with childlike needs. Spiers determined Mally was not a sexual predator and said probation would be appropriate in her case.

However, at the time of his ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Andrew Klein told a crowded courtroom: “Probation is not appropriate. The relationship went unabated for seven months. She had the ability to stop the relationship, but chose to participate.”

Spiers said, “I believe (Mally) should have been punished, but she was not a sexual predator. She did not seek out the boy for sex.”

Other times, defense attorneys see the importance of “pushing the envelope” if a sanity or character issue comes into play, and pushing the envelope is what any good attorney does to defend their client, Pitt said.

Attorney Mel McDonald, who represented Mally hired Spiers to conduct the psychological evaluation of her. He said the purpose of a forensic psychologist was unique for what he was seeking at the time.

“If the judge had any question of where Mally was going — Erin made it quite clear she wasn’t going to (commit an offense) again,” McDonald said. “I wanted the court to understand there was not a character defect or that Mally had an impulse for young boys. Erin ran her battery of tests, and that what she came up with. Sometimes the tests help, sometimes they don’t. In Mally’s case, it was helpful.”

HOSTAGE IN HUNTSVILLE

Spiers is quick to say that the level of job burnout in her profession is high, but there’s never been a time she has wanted to quit.

But there was that time in the Huntsville prison about 10 years ago when she took the remainder of a work day off after she and a caseworker were held hostage in her office by an inmate armed with two knives.

The incident happened during the first two hours Spiers spent in her new office in the prison. She had not had a chance to arrange her desk in such a way that would prohibit an inmate from getting between her and the door.

A mental patient who had been off his medication shut and blocked her office door after Spiers conducted a disciplinary review on him. He told her he needed to discuss something personal.

“He pulled out two sharp knives that looked like Exacto knives, blocked the door and said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ We said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to die.’”

But after the caseworker was able to distract the inmate, Spiers flipped the alarm, which looked like a light-switch on the wall.

A guard looked through the window, but all he could see was Spiers and the caseworker. He couldn’t see the inmate, who was sitting against the door. So the guard walked away.

“The more he kept talking, the more we realized he wasn’t going to kill us,” Spiers said. “If someone is going to kill you, they’re not going to keep talking about it, they’d just do it.”

Finally, the guard returned, pushed open the door and tackled the inmate. Spiers said the inmate was charged with aggravated kidnapping for the incident.

“It was definitely an eye opening experience for me,” Spiers said. “That lasted about 20 minutes, but it seemed longer.”

COLUMBINE AND KOBE BRYANT

Spiers had a front-row seat in evaluating the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. and the woman in the Kobe Bryant rape case.

Spiers has strong feelings about both cases, some of which she cannot say publicly.

Had the Bryant case gone to trial, Spiers’ role would have included being a liaison between the court and the prosecution and also providing some support for the woman in the case. However, the woman dropped the criminal complaint against Bryant, and a trial was dismissed in 2004.

But it was the Columbine Massacre that put Spiers in the spotlight and defined her as a national player in the forensics field. She was on a team of five forensic psychologists and psychiatrists that evaluated one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation, about two years after the killings.

Spiers was the research director for the Columbine Psychological Autopsy Project, the process to help determine what led Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to commit such a heinous act on April 20, 1999 before they took their own lives, and what could be done to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The evaluation team was assembled by Pitt after Jefferson County (Colo.) District Attorney Dave Thomas sought Pitt’s expertise. Other members on the evaluation team were Dvoskin, nationally renowned forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz and Ron Walker, a retired FBI criminal profiler.

As Littleton was reeling from the tragedy, Spiers reviewed more than 17,000 documents to help determine who should be interviewed for the project among students and residents. The atmosphere in the town under a national media microscope remained volatile and there was a lack of cooperation between law enforcement agencies, school and city officials, Spiers said.

Overcoming an initial lack of cooperation between school officials and townsfolk, Spiers spent what she described as a “life-changing summer” making phone calls and interviewing hundreds of people with some kind of connection to the tragedy.

“The level of untreated trauma that remained in that community was staggering,” she said.

The evaluation team’s project was underwritten by the A & E Network which produced a one-hour program moderated by Bill Kurtis, known for his documentaries and commentary and featured the evaluation team.

The evaluation team’s end result culminated in a four-hour presentation before the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office on the Columbine Massacre and Spiers ultimately wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Columbine Psychological Autopsy Project.

HER BEGINNING

Spiers is the daughter of Tom and Nikki Wheatley of Cave Creek. Her father is a retired high school football coach now in the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame, who won three state championships at Agua Fria High School. A former social studies teacher, he passed down his love for football to Erin. She is an avid fan of the Oakland Raiders and Arizona State University Sun Devils.

Nikki Wheatley was a longtime Spanish and humanities teacher at Cactus High School, who also is retired.

“My mom is my hero,” Spiers said. “She is a fierce advocate for what’s right. She taught us to have respect for all cultures and to teach awareness in the way of the arts.”

For all of the mentoring she has received, Spiers believes in “paying forward,” or teaching to others, who are starting out in the field.

Yet, through all her experience and experiences in her career, she said she’s still learning.

“The field of understanding human behavior is so vast,” Spiers said. “I can spend the rest of my life studying it and still never master it. I still have so much more to learn.”

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