Brandi Grissom posts, "County Used Doctor After Methods Challenged," at the Texas Tribune. Here's an extended excerpt:
Harris County paid Dr. George Denkowski, a forensic psychologist who was reprimanded earlier this month and agreed never again to perform death row evaluations in Texas, more than $300,000 to test defendants for intellectual disabilities from 2002 until 2008. And the county continued to pay Denkowksi even after a judge harshly rebuked his work, according to documents obtained by the Texas Defender Service.
Denkowski, a Fort Worth psychologist, evaluated 14 current Texas death row inmates and two who have been executed. His methods, though, came under intense scrutiny from defense lawyers and from other psychologists, who said Denkowski used flawed techniques that artificially inflated disability scores, making defendants eligible for the death penalty. The evaluations started after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that states could not execute mentally disabled people.
As part of a settlement, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists this month issued a reprimand against Denkowski. He did not admit wrongdoing, but he agreed not to conduct intellectual disability evaluations in future criminal cases and to pay a fine of $5,500. In return, the board dismissed the complaints against him. An attorney for Denkowski has said he vigorously defends his practice.
The Harris County invoices, which the Texas Defender Service obtained through a public information request, include more than $20,000 the county paid to Denkowksi after a judge issued a scathing denouncement of the psychologist's methods and commuted the death sentence of inmate Daniel Plata to life in prison. From 2005 to 2007, Harris County paid Denkowski more than $20,000 to evaluate whether Plata was so mentally disabled he would be ineligible for the death penalty. Denkowski said Plata was not mentally disabled, and he was sentenced to death. But in September 2007, Harris County state district judge Mark Ellis concluded that, "Dr. Denkowski invalidated the norms of the test by committing errors in administration and scoring."
Despite the judge's ruling, Harris County used Denkowksi at least three more times, paying him more than $20,000 collectively in those cases, including one in which he concluded the defendant would be eligible for the death penalty. "For years, the Harris County district attorney's office turned a deaf ear to leading authorities who asserted that Denkowski's methodologies were not grounded in accepted science,” said Kathryn Kase, an attorney for Plata.
A column in Connecticut's Norwich Bulletin mentions the Denkowski sanction. "Court takes great care to protect mentally disabled," is by Richard Meehan.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, the issue of executing mentally disabled defendants has created controversy and debate. In 1986, the Supreme Court weighed Florida’s procedure for reviewing the competency of mentally disabled condemned defendants and prohibited the execution of mentally incompetent offenders.
The court’s five-member majority held that the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause prohibited the execution of an insane person. It did not define insanity, but ruled that a person must be aware of the impending execution and the prisoner must understand why he or she was going to be executed.
Mental health professionals urged a comprehensive psychological assessment in the process, rather than a single interview conducted only by psychiatrists. The court determined that the condemned should be permitted to present evidence from defense mental health experts as well.
The debate did not end there, however. In 1989, the court again addressed the issue that mental disability would be considered as a mitigating factor. The court rejected the claim that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of the disabled. Instead, it ruled the jury should have been allowed to consider the defendant’s mental disability as a mitigating factor in weighing the punishment.
In 2002, the court revisited the issue and ruled that the application of the death penalty for the disabled is per se “cruel and unusual,” overturning its earlier decision.
Drawing on earlier language that the basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is the dignity of man, Justice John Paul Stevens concluded that a review of legislation in 19 states and the federal government established a consistency of the direction of change and as powerful evidence that society views mentally disabled defendants as “categorically less culpable than the average offender.”
This week, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists issued a reprimand to Dr. George Denkowski, a psychologist who has examined and cleared 14 death row prisoners for execution. Denkowski has agreed not to conduct such evaluations in future cases and to pay a fine of $5,500.
Earlier coverage of the Denkowski sanction begins at the link.
As I often point out, mental retardation is now generally referred to as a developmental or intellectual disability. Because it has a specific meaning with respect to capital cases, I continue to use the older term.
Related posts are in the mental retardation index.