Florida v. Brenton Butler (2000)

Case Synopsis

De Lestrade’s film documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning (2003) followed the trial of Brenton Butler, a 15 year-old black male who was accused of robbery and murder in Florida on or about May 7, 2000.  Early that morning, James and Mary Ann Stevens, and elderly white couple in Florida on vacation, were walking towards their motel room after breakfast when they were approached by a 20 – 25 year-old skinny black male who asked for Ms. Stevens’ purse.  When Ms. Stevens threw her coffee towards him, the unidentified black male shot her in the face with a small Derringer-type pistol, killing her.  The suspect took the purse and fled the scene on foot.   Nearly two hours later, Brenton Butler was walking from his home to fill out a job application at Blockbuster when Officer Martin made contact with him due to being a young black male in the area.  Officer Martin took Butler to the scene in the back of his marked police car where Mr. Stevens positively identified Butler as the shooter in a one person show up.  Butler was taken to the sheriff’s office where he was interrogated by Detective Williams and Detective Darnell for nearly six hours without providing a confession.  At some point during the interrogation, detectives told Butler that they would work on getting him an attorney yet they never made any effort to do so.  Detective Glover took over the interrogation and suggested that Butler may have disposed of the evidence in some nearby woods.  After dark, Detective Glover escorted a handcuffed and uninjured Butler alone into the woods.  The two emerged from the woods with visible bruises on Butler’s abdomen and face.  Back at the sheriff’s office, Detective Darnell wrote out a confession that supported the known facts of the murder.  Butler signed the confession and was charged with murder.  The juvenile court waived its exclusive jurisdiction over the criminal cause, transferring Butler’s case to the adult criminal justice system where the case was tried before Judge Waddell Wallace.  The state prosecutor put on a case based on Mr. Stevens’ field identification and Butler’s signed confession.  Butler was represented by Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell from the public defender’s office.  McGuinness and Finnell defended Butler on theories of racial profiling, an improper witness identification procedure, a coerced confession, and a failure on the part of detectives to follow up on any collateral witnesses or physical evidence.  The jury found Butler not guilty.


Potential Roles for Forensic Psychology

While the documentary did not present any information that a psychologist, either forensic or clinical, was ever involved in the case (De Lestrade, 2003), several opportunities presented themselves where a competent forensic psychologist could have been of assistance both before and during the trial.  Given his age and corresponding cognitive development, Butler may not have been competent to waive his Miranda Rights prior to and during his interrogation.  While the alleged crimes would be considered heinous, a forensic evaluation regarding his competency to stand trial, his level of psychological development, and his cognitive functioning level would have been salient in determining whether Butler’s case should remain in the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts or be transferred to the adult criminal courts.  Answers to these questions could have been discovered in a single forensic evaluation.


Applicable Forensic Assessment Principles

Salient rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court (see Miranda v. Arizona, 1966; Kent v. United States, 1966; In re Gault, 1967) began a shift in the juvenile justice system that brought in procedural processes and rights previously observed only in the criminal justice system.  Contemporary research, however, shows that the addition of those procedural processes and rights into the juvenile justice system may not have fully developed into what the courts intended, creating difficulties for juveniles who may have lessened competency not due to mental illness or defect but lack of neurological and psychological development (Grisso et al., 2003).  It is also recommended that the juvenile’s understanding of their Miranda waiver be assessed prior to a case being transferred to the criminal justice system as research has shown both age and intelligence to be correlates of Miranda comprehension and interrogative suggestibility (Jackson, 2008; MacArthur Foundation Research Network, 2012).  Finally, before a juvenile can be transferred to adult court consideration must be made regarding potential risk of dangerousness, level of sophistication-maturity, and treatment amenability.  Forensic evaluations have shown to be of significant validity in helping the courts determine venue (Brannen et al., 2006).

A forensic evaluation of Brenton Butler should seek to help answer the following questions:

  1. Did Brenton Butler have adequate comprehension of his Miranda Rights prior to waiving them before Detective Williams, Detective Darnell, and Detective Glover?
  2. Did Brenton Butler have a significant amount of interrogative suggestibility, and, if so, did interrogative suggestibility play a significant role in his confession?
  3. What is Brenton Butler’s potential risk of dangerousness?
  4. What is Brenton Butler’s level of sophistication-maturity?
  5. What is Brenton Butler’s level of treatment amenability?
  6. What is Brenton Butler’s level of understanding of the charges against him and the upcoming proceedings?
  7. What is Brenton Butler’s level of ability to assist his attorney in his defense?


Salient Third Party Information

While information obtained through direct interviews with and instrument-based assessments of Butler should provide the bulk of information used in a forensic evaluation, third party information will be required to properly obtain sufficient information to support answers to the proposed forensic questions.  Such information will best serve to identify risk factor and protective factor correlates that have been validated through empirical research and published in peer-reviewed journals (Jackson, 2008).  Previous criminal records and school disciplinary records, if any, should be reviewed to help assess sophistication and dangerousness.  School records should be reviewed to help assess intelligence, sophistication, and maturity.  School teachers can be reviewed to further understand intelligence, maturity, and treatment amenability as educational amenability could relate to treatment amenability.  Immediate family members and close friends should be interviewed to help assess dangerousness, maturity, and sophistication.  Medical records, including psychological or psychiatric records, should be reviewed to identify both correlates and any history of mental illness that could be relevant to both competency and understanding of the wrongfulness of the alleged actions.


Ethical Considerations

A forensic psychologist conducting an evaluation of Butler to help answer the proposed questions must remain within the boundaries of professional ethics.  While ethicolegal guidelines may vary from state to state, practitioners in any jurisdiction should abide by the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology (“Guidelines”) as adopted by the APA Council of Representatives (American Psychology-Law Society, 2011).  Upon review of the Guidelines, important standards to consider in the Butler case would include impartiality, avoiding conflicts of interest, practicing within one’s scope of competence, appreciation of the differences between individuals involved in the case, avoiding the therapeutic-forensic role conflict, maintaining appropriate confidentiality, and focusing on the relevant psycholegal factors and not Butler’s guilt or innocence (American Psychology-Law Society, 2011).


Legal Considerations

De Lestrade’s documentary (2003) presented little to no information that would lead one to believe, absent other contradictory information, that Brenton Butler had a significant risk of future dangerousness, a significant level of sophistication-maturity, a low level of treatment amenability, or factors that would support his understanding of the seriousness of his situation both during interrogation and during trial given his age and lack of previous encounters with the criminal justice system.  As such, it may have been inappropriate to transfer his case to the adult criminal justice system (Kent v. United States, 1966).  The proposed questions to answer through evaluation would assist the court in determining whether or not the waiver of Miranda Rights during interrogation was valid, whether or not Butler’s case needed to be retained in the juvenile courts or transferred to the adult courts, and whether or not Butler was competent to stand trial in the adult criminal justice system.


Potential Forensic Instruments

A number of forensic instruments would prove useful in a forensic evaluation of Butler to help answer the proposed forensic questions.  In choosing appropriate instruments, consideration was given to a survey of forensic diplomats regarding their uses of and recommendations for instruments in various types of forensic evaluations (Lally, 2003).  I would consider for use the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – Adolescent, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition, the Miranda Rights Comprehension Instruments – II, the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool for Criminal Adjudication, and the Risk-Sophistication-Treatment-Inventory with Butler.

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – 2 Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF) is designed to assess for major symptoms of psychopathology, personality characteristics, and behavioral concerns (Pearson, 2012).  It has been found to be useful in forensic evaluations and have validity in both Caucasian and African American examinees (Archer & Nichols, 1992; Arbisi, Ben-Porath, & McNulty, 2002).  The MMPI-2-RF was recommended for mental state at the time of the offense evaluations, acceptable for risk of violence evaluations, acceptable for competency to stand trial evaluations, and acceptable for competency to waive Miranda Rights evaluations (Lally, 2003).  While the MMPI-2-RF is designed for populations age 18 and older, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – Adolescent (MMPI-A) is a variation designed for age groups that include Butler. While not specific to the proposed questions, the MMPI-A would help identify or rule out psychopathology that may have an impact on the various psycholegal issues at hand (Jackson, 2008).

Assessment of intelligence would be salient to a number of the proposed questions.  The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – III (WAIS-III) was recommended for mental state at the time of the offense evaluations, acceptable for risk of violence evaluations, recommended for competency to stand trial evaluations, recommended for competency to waive Miranda rights evaluations (Lally, 2003).  Given his age, Butler could be given the WAIS-III or, alternately, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition (WISC-IV) that is designed for populations between age 6 and 17 (Pearson, 2012).  Information from the WAIS-III or the WISC-IV would be relevant to several of the proposed questions.

The Miranda Rights Comprehension Instruments – II (MRCI-II) is designed to assess a juvenile’s capacity to understand and waive his/her Miranda Rights (Jackson, 2008).  Goldstein, Condie, & Kalbeitzer sought to update Grisso’s instruments with less complicated language and updated norms.  The instrument includes five sub-instruments that help assess comprehension of the elements of Miranda Rights and appreciation of the importance of rights in legal situations.  It also assesses for potential or likelihood of offering false confessions (Jackson, 2008).  The MRCI-II is an updated adaptation of Grisso’s instruments which were recommended in competency to waive Miranda rights evaluations (Lally, 2003).

The MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool for Criminal Adjudication (MacCAT-CA) and the Juvenile Competency Assessment Interview (JACI) are both designed to assess a juvenile’s functional legal abilities related to competency to stand trial and competency to be tried in the adult court system.  The JACI is a structured interview that is specifically designed for youth; however, it is not a standardized instrument with norm values.  The MacCAT-CA is a structured interview designed for adults with norms that has a history of being applied to juvenile cases (Jackson, 2008).  The MacCAT-CA was further recommended for use in competency to stand trial evaluations (Lally, 2003).

The Risk-Sophistication-Treatment-Inventory (RST-I) was designed to assess the three factors described in Kent v. United States (1966) salient to transferring a juvenile to adult court.  The instrument is a semi-structured interview and measures 1) level of dangerousness, 2) level of sophistication or maturity; and 3) amenability to treatment with various scales and subscales relevant to the Butler case (Jackson, 2008).

Forensic Report Considerations

No standardization currently exists for the content and layout of a forensic psychological report.  In writing the report, the examiner must clearly document both findings and the reasons for each finding.  The report should contain information regarding the receipt of informed consent or a court order for the evaluation.  The tone should be impartial and objective, addressing the psycholegal questions and not the presenting problems of the examinee.  The report must be accurate, contain empirical facts, and avoid inferences.  It is suggested that the report contain an opening, confidentiality warnings, a synopsis, procedures regarding informed consent, a disclosure of missing information, relevant history, clinical formulation, forensic evaluation, a summary of findings, and recommendations (Jackson, 2008).


Forensic Testimony Considerations

Several considerations must be given when providing expert testimony as a forensic psychologist.  The psychological expert witness should be qualified both clinically and forensically.  Kwartner and Boccaccini offered that effective expert testimony can be described in Four C’s – Clarity, Clinical knowledge, Case specific, and Certainty.  The witness must be able to clearly explain the psychological and psycholegal concepts to the jury without extensive use of technical jargon.  Experts are given more credibility when they include clinical knowledge and experience in formulating their opinions.  The testimony should be specifically relevant to the case so as to tie the concepts together and not lose the judge and/or jury in extraneous knowledge.  Finally, the expert must be able to express a high level of confidence, but not absolute confidence, in their opinions (Jackson, 2008).


Implications on Case

The case involving Brenton Butler is an excellent example for the importance of forensic psychology’s involvement in juvenile justice cases, especially those transferred to the adult criminal justice system.  It is probable that a thorough and proper forensic evaluation would have helped determine both that Butler was not competent to stand trial as an adult and was not an appropriate candidate for transfer to the adult criminal justice system.  Once the case got to court – whether adult or juvenile – the evaluation may have shown that Butler was not competent to waive his Miranda rights.  The court may have ruled the confession inadmissible if it found that he was not competent to waive his Miranda rights, effectively destroying the state’s case against Butler.  While highly speculative, the appropriate use of a forensic evaluation early on in the Butler case may have prevented his six month incarceration before the trial where he was ultimately found not guilty.



American Psychology-Law Society. (2011). Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. Retrieved from http://www.ap-ls.org/aboutpsychlaw/SpecialtyGuidelines.php

Arbisi, P.A., Ben-Porath, Y.S., & McNulty, J.  (2002). A Comparison of MMPI-2 Validity in African American and Caucasian Psychiatric Inpatients.  Psychological Assessment, 14(1), 3-15.

Archer, R. P., & Nichols, D. S. (1992).  [Review of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2].  In The Eleventh Mental Measurements Yearbook.  Available from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/

Brannen, D., Zapf, P, Salekin, K., Kubak, F., & DeCoster, J. (2006).  Transfer to Adult Court: A national study of how juvenile court judges weight pertinent Kent criteria. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 12(3), 332-355.

De Lestrade, J. (Poncet, D). (2003). Murder on a Sunday Morning [Film]. Paris, France: Centre National du Cinema et de L’image Animee (CNC).

Grisso, T., Steingberg, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., Scott, E., Graham, S., Lexcen, F., Reppucci, N. D., & Schwartz, R.  (2003).  Juveniles’ Competence to Stand Trial: A Comparison of Adolescents’ and Adults’ Capacities as Trial Defendants.  Law and Human Behavior, 27(4), 333-363.

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).

Jackson, R. (Ed.). (2008). Learning Forensic Assessment. New York: NW: Routledge.

Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966).

Lally, S. J. (2003).  What Tests Are Acceptable for Use in Forensic Evaluations? A Survey of Experts.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(5), 491-498.

MacArthur Foundation Research Network.  (n.d.).  Issue Brief 1: Adolescent Legal Competence in Court.  Retrieved on October 27, 2012, from http://www.adjj.org

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Pearson.  (n.d.).  Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-RF.  Retrieved on November 16, 2012, from http://www.pearsonassessments.com/.

© 2012 – 2015, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.

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About the author

Jeremy Liebbe holds a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Police Science, and is currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. He has over a decade of law enforcement investigative experience as a detective sergeant with experience including narcotics, crimes against children, and homicide investigations. As a result of his expertise in complex criminal investigations and forensic mental health Jeremy has earned numerous commendations, lectured throughout Texas and in several other states, authored and co-authored over a half dozen published papers, and has provided expert testimony in over a dozen felony trials.