death penalty forensic science incompetency intellectual disabilities Texas

Texas Psychologist Banned from Criminal Cases

Last week, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist George Denkowski for his unscientific testing methods in evaluating whether certain defendants in capital murder cases were intellectually disabled (and therefore ineligible for the death penalty).  As an expert witness in dozens of cases, Dr. Denkowski reportedly artificially inflated intelligence scores and deviated from the standard use of a test that evaluates adaptive behavior or life skills.  His testimony helped send at least 16 individuals to death row, 2 of whom have already been executed.

According to the Texas Tribune, “Texas defense lawyers and forensic psychologists across the nation have watched the case closely. Although Dr. Denkowski admitted no wrongdoing and defends his practice, those critical of his methods said the settlement could give those inmates still on death row an important appellate opportunity.” (“Texas Psychologist Punished in Death Penalty Cases,” April 15, 2011)

The Tribune also reports that “Other psychologists have rejected Dr. Denkowski’s methods, arguing that they have no scientific basis. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in its 2010 manual for classifying intellectual disability strongly cautioned against using Dr. Denkowski’s methods ‘until firmly supported by empirical evidence.'”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia (2002) prohibited the application of the death penalty to persons with intellectual disabilities but left it to states to determine the criteria for evaluating evidence of such disabilities.  The Texas Legislature still has not enacted statutory provisions governing the standards and procedures to be followed in these cases.  This session, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on House Bill 1670 by Representative Garnet Coleman, which requires a pre-trial hearing in capital cases to determine whether the defendant has intellectual disabilities.  At least 13 inmates have been removed from Texas’ death row since 2002 in compliance with Atkins.

The State Board of Examiners banned Dr. Denkowski from conducting intellectual disability evaluations in future criminal cases and levied a fine of $5,500 against him.  In exchange, it dismissed the complaints against him and allowed him to keep his license.

Read more from the Houston Chronicle and the Associated Press.

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