Nationally-Known Psychologist Responds to Texas Board Sanctioning of Dr. Death, George Denkowski

Yesterday, we posted about a new development regarding mitigating factors in Texas and elsewhere: the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists has sanctioned George Denkowski, Ph.D., otherwise known as "Dr. Death," for his questionable evaluations of over a dozen men on Texas Death Row. 

Dr. Death was argued to have used unscientific methods to find that 16 men (two have been executed, the others set on Death Row) to boost their IQ scores out of the Atkins protective range.

Psychologist Paula Kaplan Responds

Dr. Paula Kaplan is a clinical and research psychologist, an Affiliate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and a Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  She has written a piece that appears in Psychology Today magazine that discusses the recent punishment of Dr. George Denkowski.

Dr. Kaplan's April 19, 2011 article, "When Psychologists Make Life-or-Death Decisions: How psychologists directly determine who lives and dies in justice system," is a must-read for anyone interested in the evaluation of men and women for intellectual capacity, particularly as it impacts the decision on whether or not the death penalty will be sought. 

Of particular import:

... [It is] ... a dangerous myth that psychological assessments are absolutely objective and that psychologists' conduct of them can be totally free from bias.

Please take the time to read the article.  And if you can see fit to contribute to funding for the completion of Dr. Kaplan's film, then please consider helping her get that project finalized and out for all of us to see and hear.

Texas' Dr. Death, George Denkowski, Sanctioned by Texas Board - 14 Death Row Inmates May Be Saved

Back in January 2010, we first took note of something sinister happening over in Texas -- media spotlights were revealing that over a dozen Texas Death Row inmates had had their IQ scores suspiciously bumped up to a sufficiently high number that they were eligible for the death penalty and execution.  (Read that post for details here.)

This month, the story continues as the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists has officially sanctioned, or punished, psychologist George Denkowski.  Seems George Denkowski, Ph.D. saw fit to examine 16 individuals and using his special techniques, find each of them competent to stand trial and face the death penalty.

Deal That Was Made: Is It a Hand Slap?

The sanction was a settlement between the Texas Board and Dr. Denkowski (who has often been labeled "Dr. Death" in the media).  The Board heard evidence that Dr. Denkowski's testing methods were not scientifically based.  Both his peers (psychologists) as well as death-qualified defense lawyers argued that he was simply unscientific. 

In the end, Dr. Death made a deal with the Texas Board:  he will not conduct intellectual disability evaluations in future criminal cases.  He will pay $5,500 as a fine.  He did not admit that he did anything wrong.  In return, the Board agreed to dismiss all the charges against him.

Fourteen of these men evaluated by Dr. Denkowski sit on Death Row today.  Two of these men have been executed.

These are the 14 individuals whose fate remains in the hands of the Texas appellate system after Dr. Death's bad acts have been revealed:

  • Anthony Pierce
  • Virgilio Maldonado
  • Calvin Hunter
  • Roosevelt Smith Jr.
  • John Matamoros
  • Derrick Charles 
  • Kim Ly Lim
  • Coy Wesbrook
  • Joel Escobedo
  • Jamie McCoskey
  • Warren Rivers
  • Tomas Gallo
  • Steven Butler
  • Alfred Brown

Hopefully, the settlement reached here will help the post-conviction efforts of the defense attorneys representing these 14 individuals as they argue that they are indeed protected from the death penalty under federal constitutional mandates that protect against execution of the "mentally retarded," see Atkins v. Virginia and its progeny. 




Will Florida's Overhaul of Criminal Court System Become Reality? The New Criminal High Court Just Passed Into Law

Yesterday, legislation passed in the Florida Senate to make radical changes to the state criminal justice system - and this will have a major impact upon how death penalty cases are handled here in the State of Florida if the Powers That Be can get this through the necessary hurdle of a constitutional amendment.

All this came about, apparently, as everyone up in Tallahassee is fighting over budget matters.  The Tampa Tribune points a finger at JD Alexander, the chairperson of the Florida Senate Budget Committee who inserted a surprise into a bill, amending the pending Senate bill by adding the same language - language approving major changes to our criminal courts - that he apparently cut and pasted from a House bill that passed earlier this month. 

What The New Legislation Does - Births a Brand New High Court for Criminal Cases

The Florida Legislature has approved splitting the Florida Supreme Court into two separate courts:  one civil, one criminal.  Since the Florida Supreme Court would be left with some empty seats, three to be exact, Governor Rick Scott would be able to appoint who would fill those positions on the highest civil court in the state. 

The new law also gives the Florida Legislature new power taken from the Florida Supreme Court as part of the Florida Supreme Court's makeover.  Now, the Legislature will control the internal rule-making process of the court.  

This is law, a done deal -- except for the hurdle of getting a Constitutional Amendment passed.

Backlog of Death Penalty Cases Said to Be Reason for Creating New Court

It's been argued that the reason for this judicial revamp is that death penalty cases are backlogged right now in the current Florida Supreme Court.  Republicans in the Florida House pointed to the 393 people setting on Florida's Death Row as one major reason that a new, separate high court dedicated to criminal matters was needed. 

Others are arguing that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Death Row; instead, they focus on the Florida Supreme Court and its ability to decide the boundaries of Florida's voting districts.  These folk suggest that moving three justices over to this new criminal court will open the door to Governor Scott appointing people to fill those positions that will have the same viewpoint he does on things. 

Power play, they say.  Not concern over capital punishment. 

It's Not Over Until the Voters Okay It Via a Constitutional Amendment

If anyone thinks that lines are being blurred between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches -- well, you're not alone.  

Most of the legal community in this state is discussing the huge impact of what has just happened here.  This is a very, very, very big deal. 

All that remains before these changes become effective in our state is for this to be placed on a ballot.  Making this big of an overall to the Florida judicial system means that the constitution has to be changed.  And, sixty percent (60%) of the voters will have to approve the new constitution as amended. 

Florida will vote on the Amendment on the November 2012 Ballot.  

New North Carolina Study Finds Death Penalty Flawed - Professors Move To Stop Capital Punishment in NC

One more scholarly effort can be placed onto that ever-growing stack of research studies that find capital punishment is simply untrustworthy, that it is procedurally flawed.  Never mind the morality.  Or mercy.  Or the growing problem of finding drugs for those lethal injections .... The study nixes the death penalty before these issues even arise.

Matthew Robinson of Appalachian State University Releases April 2011 Study of North Carolina Death Penalty

Professor Matthew Robinson released his research findings from the offices of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice office.  (Professor Robinson maintains his own website here.)

Professor Robinson, at the accompanying press conference, told the media that the procedure of convicting and sentencing an individual to death in North Carolina is faulty.  Result?  Together with professors from Fayetteville State University and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Professor Robinson argues that North Carolina should halt executing people for crimes.  

Next Step:  North Carolina Legislatures Must Consider the Robinson Report

Those seeking to abolish the death penalty in North Carolina are hoping that this new research study will be powerful enough to exert influence over the legislators that are currently dealing with a number of proposals dealing with capital punishment in their state

Among them:  a bill that seeks to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act, which currently provides an avenue for death row inmates to challenge their sentences by presenting post-conviction evidence of racial bias.  

[Note:  As of the initial publication of this post, we were not able to locate the full text of this report.  Upon discovery of the full text of this new death penalty study online, we'll add the link here for your convenience.]


Lethal Injection Cocktails: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Back in 2009, there was a three part series of posts here on the Death Penalty Blog, discussing the lethal injection cocktail as it was commonly used at the time:  in Florida, this meant a combo of first, thiopental sodium ; second, pancuronium bromide; and lastly, potassium chloride. 

From that series (please go to the posts for research details and more info):

  1. Thiopental sodium is the first drug to be administered during an execution by lethal injection in Florida. As a general anesthetic, thiopental sodium poses special risks because it is so short-lasting that for any number of reasons it can cease to operate as sufficient anesthesia long before the other drugs cause the death of the condemned.[1] Think about that. It stops working within minutes.
  2. The second chemical involved in the lethal injection process, pancuronium bromide, or Pavulon, is also constitutionally problematic under existing law. A derivative of curare, it operates to suppress any muscular movement, including breathing, in the condemned, but does not anesthetize him or affect his consciousness in any way.  According to recent scholarship, it is completely unnecessary to causing the condemned's death, and serves only to make the execution seem more palatable to the other participants and witnesses when the other drugs have their effects, which can include spasm, twitching and other movements of the voluntary muscles.
  3. Finally, the use of the third drug -- the actual killing agent potassium chloride -- also raises important constitutional concerns. According to Dr. James J. Ramsey, a certified perfusionist and currently the Program Director in the Program in Cardiovascular Perfusion at Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, the adequacy of the potassium chloride to cause death by stopping the heart is in question.  The inmate actually suffocates: the lethal injection does not just peacefully stop the heart.

Today, with the dwindling supply of drugs available for executions, there seems to be more public awareness of the chemicals used in capital punishment.  This is a good thing, since so many avert their eyes to the realities here.

This Week, The New York Times considers the question.

In a New York Times article published April 9, 2011, entitled "What's in a Lethal Injection 'Cocktail'?" reporter Pam Belluck delves into the issue of what exactly happens in those lethal injection executions, especially now that thiopental sodium isn't being used any longer. 

If only it went into more detail.  The research shows that the lethal injection method is cruel - and with the innovation of a drug, pentobarbital, that has been used or tested so rarely on human beings, it's also becoming highly unusual, too. 

Integrity, Dignity, and Honor

It would nice to think that these injections of drugs into a human being resulted in a merciful death, but research does not support that warm fuzzy.  And this was true before states like Ohio and Texas began executing men just as vets euthanize cats and dogs. 

Sure, there are proponents of the death penalty who will say "who cares? Let them suffer, look what they did."  However, there are the considerations of integrity, dignity, and honor which the state must (or should) maintain. 

Our system of government, to the extent that it deems capital punishment to be acceptable, should never stoop to have its actions compared with those that it has found worthy of death.  We must insure that the method of execution is merciful, as much as we can. 

Right now, with the condoned use of pentobarbital in state executions, it's clear that we are not.

Growing Fight in Texas Against Pentobarbital in Executions: Cleve Foster Stay, ACLU Report

As usual, Texas is in the spotlight regarding capital punishment, as a big victory was had at the United States Supreme Court this week in stopping the execution of Cleve Foster, who was scheduled to make history as the first person to die in Texas under their new lethal injection cocktail.  Texas would be substituting pentobarbital for sodium thiopental in its three drug cocktail in Foster's execution, since Texas has also apparently lost its drug supplier.

Yesterday, with only around eight hours to go before the execution itself, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Cleve Foster.  Read the Order Staying Cleve Foster's Execution here.  

To follow the Texas execution schedule, go here.  Several men are scheduled to die in the next few months, including Humberto Leal, Foster's co-appellant in state proceedings challenging the new drug cocktail.  Foster's case will not stay Texas' use of pentobarbital in these executions - the High Court isn't intervening today because of a concern over pentobarbital. 

The Fight in Texas Against Pentobarbital - Read the New, Powerful Joint Report

A few weeks ago, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation Capital Punishment Project and Human Rights Program, and the Center for International Human Rights, Northwestern University School of Law issued a bluntly titled report, “Regulating Death in the Lone Star State: Texas Law Protects Lizards From Needless Suffering, But Not Human Beings.” 

It's a powerful and important work, and you can read it here.  From the report:

Texas’ lax attitude regarding the taking of human life contrasts sharply with its enactment of detailed regulations to ensure that animals suffer no pain when they are euthanized. Animal euthanasia laws provide strict certification requirements for euthanasia technicians and regulate acceptable methods of intravenous euthanasia down to the correct dosage per kilogram of an animal’s body weight. By contrast, the Texas legislature has failed to enact any legislation to ensure that the individuals responsible for extinguishing human life are properly trained and qualified, and that the drugs they administer are both effective and humane.

Cleve Foster Stay by US Supreme Court NOT Based on Drug Cocktail Challenge

While Foster's challenge to the use of pentobarbital is strong -- and perhaps, given the ACLU Report, the strongest so far on not executing people like vets euthanize pets -- the stay granted by the High Court was not based upon its need to consider arguments regarding execution methods.

No.  The stay of Cleve Foster's execution was based upon arguments that  he received ineffective legal representation in both his trial and during his appellate process when his lawyers did not challenge the state's blood-spatter evidence which prosecutors argued linked Foster to the rape and murder of Nyaneur Pal in Fort Worth, Texas, back in 2002. Experts disagree on whether that blood-spatter evidence shows the body had been moved (the state's contention) or whether Pal had been killed where her body was discovered (Foster's contention). 

 The State of Texas has thirty (30) days to respond to the arguments addressed in Foster's petition for rehearing.   

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