Saturday, January 09, 2010

Forensic psychologist inflated IQ scores to secure death penalty

According to an excellent investigative article in the Texas Observer by reporter Renee Feltz ("Cracked," Jan. 8), seventeen men currently on Texas' death row were evaluated by a forensic psychologist using "junk science" who improperly inflated IQ scores to make them eligible for the death penalty despite Supreme Court caselaw banning execution of the mentally retarded.

Among the cases Dr. George Denkowski apparently tainted was that of Michael Richard, who was executed for capital murder in September 2007. This case was heretofore better known because Judge Sharon Keller at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied receipt of Richard's final habeas claim with her infamous "We close at 5" comment. That led to the Commission on Judicial Conduct to initiate fact-finding proceedings that may yet lead to her removal.

Feltz reports that:

After the Atkins decision in 2002, Denkowski became the first choice for Texas prosecutors. He would ultimately testify in 29 cases—nearly two-thirds of such appeals in Texas to date. ...

In 29 cases, Denkowski has found defendants retarded only eight times. By 2006, when he tested Plata, Denkowski had garnered an “almost Dr. Death status” among defense lawyers, according to attorney Robert Morrow. Morrow represented Alfred DeWayne Brown during his 2004 trial for killing a clerk and a security guard at a Houston check-cashing store. Morrow said “Denkowski pretty much thought that if you had engaged in criminal behavior you were not retarded,” Morrow says. Brown remains on Death Row.

The work was lucrative. Denkowski charged prosecutors hourly rates of $180 for evaluations, and $250 for court testimony. Most of the cases he worked on were in Harris County, which until 2009 pursued more death-penalty sentences than any other county in Texas. Between 2003 and 2009, Harris County paid him $303,084 for his services, according to the Harris County Auditor.

The case of Daniel Plata brought the issue of Denkowski's credibility to a head when a federal judge found that Denkowski had improperly inflated IQ scores and all of his testimony “must be disregarded due to fatal errors.” Then, "On Jan. 18, 2008, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and commuted Plata’s death sentence to life in prison. He was transferred to the Hodge Unit in Rusk, where he is now housed with other mentally retarded prisoners." At that point, writes Feltz:

The decision ended Daniel Plata’s 12-year stay on Texas’ Death Row. It might also lead to the end of George Denkowski’s career as a licensed psychologist. Judge Ellis’ decision emboldened one of Denkowski’s colleagues, Jerome Brown of Bellaire, to file a complaint with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. If Denkowski loses his license, the cases of 17 other Texas men on Death Row—men he determined were not mentally retarded—could be re-examined. And Texas’ status as a national outlier in cases involving mental retardation could be changed for good.

Brown worked as an expert for the defense on five capital cases in which Denkowski worked for the prosecution. He says Denkowski used the same estimation techniques and showed the same deference to prosecutors’ evidence in those cases as he did in Plata’s, and that it was “essentially junk science. It is science that appears to be scientific, but it doesn’t have any background of validation to it.”

The professional psychiatric community apparently agrees:

After the judge rejected Denkowski’s findings in the Plata case, Brown enlisted Jack Fletcher and a Florida-based psychologist named Tom Oakland to jointly file a complaint against Denkowski. Oakland co-authored the adaptive-behavior test. Their complaint cited the Richard case, as well as those of Plata and DeWayne Brown.

Last February, the state Board of Examiners of Psychologists upheld the complaint, finding that Denkowski had made “administration, scoring and mathematical errors” in all three cases. The board sent the complaint to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Denkowski will have a chance to defend himself in a hearing scheduled for Feb. 16 in Austin. He could lose his license.

The broader psychological community has also rejected Denkowski’s methods. He is mentioned by name in the 2010 edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ diagnostic manual. In a section about how cultural or economic factors should impact scores on adaptive behavior tests, the authors “strongly caution against practices such as those recommended by Denkowski.”

Given all that, it's hard to disagree with

Daniel Plata’s lawyer, Kathryn Kase, [who] argues that all of the appeals on which Denkowski worked should be re-heard. “When you have junk science in a case, it’s like pouring poison into a punch bowl,” she says. “You aren’t going to get the poison out. So you have to pour out the punch, clean the bowl, and start all over again.”
Congrats to Feltz and the Observer for excellent reporting on a story that really needed to be told.


Anonymous said...

Most of psychiatry is junk science.

LosingMyMemory said...

I have an information question. Sometime in the last 12-18 months I read a summary of some Austin writer’s unfinished book on the web. On the line of “I have thousands of pages of notes on this, but I will distill it down to many fewer pages for this web posting.” It was about an Austin native, a long time criminal, who was killed in the 1970s or 1980s in a retribution killing IIRC in the Dallas area. This Austinite had graduated from Austin High, had been on the UT football team in the late 1950s, but Coach Royal kicked him off for some criminal activity. He went on to a life of crime in Austin, spent some time in jail, ended up getting killed. I may recall his owning a garage and also dealt in stolen car parts, among his criminal activities.

For the life of me, I cannot remember his name, nor that of the writer. Any hints?


Anonymous said...

Just as easy to write the article with the headline, "Anti-death penalty advocates fudge IQ tests to keep murderers off death row". Psychiatry is a junk science in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

I think the real message is that psychologist should not be biased in their work.

Diagnosis of Mental Health/Mental Retardation issues of "criminals" should not ever be any different then that non "non criminals".

Certainly a Psychologists personal opinion about capital punishment or who is paying the bills should be ignored in any diagnosis.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:29, it might be "just as easy" to write that headline, given that you're anonymous and no one would hold you accountable. But if you're basing your statement on the actual story at hand instead of pulling stuff out of thin air, your comment would not be applicable. Unless, of course, you have evidence critical of the experts who debunked Denkowski's work. Do you?

Marie T said...

If the posts do not know the difference between hiring someone who practices Psychiatry and a Psychologist, then obviously they are not competent to comment on this article. Talk about showing your ignorance and then daring to talk about fudging tests. Please forgive me for being so testy, but someone's life if at stake here and armchair idiots need to be quiet. I will sign my name.

Anonymous said...

Well Marie T, I seem to have missed your point. Psychiatrist go to med school while psycholigist get a PHD. Psychiatrist can prescribe meds which allows them to do more harm than psychologist. Much of psychiatry is based on Psychology and both use the same DSM diagnostic criteria. Personally, I think psychologist are better informed when it comes to mental illness because they actually study the subject more where doctors study medicine. But that's just an opinion. If it can't be treated with a pill most psychiatrist don't have a clue what else to do.

Otherwise, there are both psychologist and psychiatriast who practice forensic psychology/psychiatry and testify in court about issues like this. As far as I'm concerned both are junk science. I guess you could say psychology is junk science while psychiatry is junk medicine. Other than, what's the difference. I don't get your point. Maybe you could elaborate a little so this "arm chair idiot" might understand. Just don't use too many big words.

Anonymous said...

Psychiatry is a soft science, at best. It should be abolished for use on a courtroom. Each side finds a favorite doc and pushes that opinion. And nothing gets said that a jury couldn't figure out on their own.

And by the way, Grits, a few hours on the couch wouldn't hurt you.

Anonymous said...

"Psychiatry is a soft science, at best. It should be abolished for use on a courtroom. Each side finds a favorite doc and pushes that opinion. And nothing gets said that a jury couldn't figure out on their own."

Um, that's the point of the jury, to look at the facts from each side and choose which they believe more, or maybe they'll believe neither. If you think the jury will figure out the facts without being informed of the facts, how is giving them more information on the facts of the defendant's mental wellness or retardation going to make things "worse?" Each side is going to present their "own" facts, so what is your problem with the mental health profession in this respect?

Hook Em Horns said...

Junk science, liars, anyone really surprised?

Hook Em Horns said...

The only thing shocking about this is the levels to which this state has and will go to DENY due process. Absolutely Fucking Amazing!!! Texas is a dangerous place to live. Fear the criminal but fear the system even more!

Anonymous said...

"Bill" In my mind, collectively we have lost our way. We no longer extract revenge. We are so politically correct, we no longer insult & yet we continually fool ourselves.

If I'm assaulted by a mental defective, guess what I don't give a hoot how the Goblin is handicapped.

Biblically, I'm the "Avenger of Blood." Therefore I suggest the "Goblins" leave my entire family alone!

The Loon said...

To LosingMyMemory: I suspect you're thinking of the Tim Overton Gang. Overton was often defended by Webbie Flanangan, another gaudy character of the time. If he's not dead, Webbie is in prison.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:15 writes: "Biblically, I'm the 'Avenger of Blood.'"

Funny, you sounded like just a blowhard.

Also, we apparently read different Bibles. Mine includes references to this guy Jesus who you might have heard of.

TDCJ EX said...

Take away the words death penalty, and the anonymous trolls go away. Anyone who thinks or believes they are a " biblical avenger" at might want to seek the assistance of both a psychologist and a psychiatrist . Then they can talk about their desire to kill people , the mental health professional would then be required to follow Tarasoff rulings and notify the local authorities where you'll not find yourself a nice TDCJ psychiatric unit like Skyview!

Unfortunately instead of any rational discussion about the use of junk science and what is called perjury when the defense does the same thing. Because other words, death penalty, the anonymous trolls. For some unknown reason to believe that by making bizarre statements they are going to change anyone's mind.

The debate should be about a government abusing its power, prosecutorial immunity, and how to fix it. Things such as term limits, making the state and its agents, legally and civilly responsible for their behavior and so on . Not pathetic, name-calling and which only shows that you're wrong . This seems to be the tactic of what is and is becoming a increasingly marginalized segment of the political spectrum.

How many people are currently incarcerated based ased on the words of so-called "forensic experts" regardless of the sentence?

John Kerr said...

Judge Sharon closes at 5 p.m.

The forensic psychologist provides prosecutors with the most effective evidence their money can buy.

And the wheel goes round and round.

I'm never surprised to learn virtually everybody on the "law enforcement" team is truly ON the team.

No story here.

Frankly, given the direction the system's taken in the post-Nixon, get-tough era, I'm somewhat relieved every day that passes without some member of Congress, Rep. Demi Goguery of Texas, perhaps, introducing the Summary Executions to Save America Act.

Who'd dare vote against that?

Anonymous said...

Grits, for Christ' sake, you really don't think this story flows both ways? After Atkins, nearly everyone on death row became instantly retarded. There's a whole cottage industry for mental health experts on both sides of death penalty litigation. Denkowski for the state, Jerome Brown and Mark Cunningham for the defense are just a few of the names that immediately come to mind. The scoring of IQ tests is inherently subjective and scores can be easily manipulated in either direction given the bias of the test administrator. Don't believe me? Get your hands on a copy of the Wechsler scoring manual and see for yourself. While you're at it, Google "Flynn Effect" if you want to see some really subjective IQ score manipulation that is currently being espoused by many defense psychologists that is truly "junk science."

The real story here is the message that the psychology and psychiatry professions (overwhelmingly populated by liberal anti-death penalty types) is trying to send to those among their ranks who dare cooperate with the state in an effort to obtain the death penalty.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:38 writes "you really don't think this story flows both ways?"

THIS story? No. Did you actually read this story?

As for, "After Atkins, nearly everyone on death row became instantly retarded," that statement is simply straight-up false. There are somewhere around 350 on death row - perhaps 13% filed Atkins claims, extrapolating from data in the Observer.

Regarding the claim that IQ tests "can be easily manipulated in either direction given the bias of the test administrator," we've got concrete evidence the numbers were manipulated to increase IQ scores to secure the death penalty by Dr. Denkowski. Please point to any similar case where a court has ruled IQ testers intentionally reduced the numbers - much less one where a single expert worked 2/3 of DP cases. If you can't identify such a case, then you're speculating without any factual basis. By contrast, even the Court of Criminal Appeals (who are hardly "liberal anti-death penalty types") didn't back Denkowski's work once the facts are in, .

I googgled "Flynn Effect" as you suggested and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with capital cases or defense experts - if it's actually relevant, please explain how.

Finally, your version of the "real story" ignores the facts of the situation and promotes a false equation between Denkowski's misconduct and defense experts when no evidence (at least that you or anyone here has presented) supports that claim.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Whoops, in last comment I meant "2/3 of Atkins claims," not "2/3 of DP cases."

Hook Em Horns said...

TDCJ EX said...

The debate should be about a government abusing its power, prosecutorial immunity, and how to fix it. Things such as term limits, making the state and its agents, legally and civilly responsible for their behavior and so on . Not pathetic, name-calling and which only shows that you're wrong .
AMEN AMEN AMEN AMEN AMEN AMEN!!!! Although I will admit to enjoying the use of pathetic name calling :-)

Anonymous said...

Someone should also check into Randall (Randy) Price's use of the same basic practice (inflating IQ scores of death row inmates) - see Michael Hall - he had an IQ from childhood on that floated around 70 to 75 and then out of the blue Price comes in with an 85, thus probably ensuring his execution.

Anonymous said...

This is so good to see. I reviewed some of Denkowki's work while on internship. He was a hack. He did not follow scoring criteria appropriately and he routinely made very disengenious "adjustments" of scores which are not appropriate are not a part of the scoring criteria in the Wechsler manuals. this needed to happen and this story needs to be told.

Unfortunately, Denkowski was a psychologist and not a psychiatrist. For the record, psychologists and psychiatrists have very few legislated roles in the criminal justice system. These professions are asked to prevent information to the court. So when they are there to present the information, don't blame them, blame the judges and attorneys.

Anonymous said...

@ TDCJ EX, Tarasoff rulings were never adopted by Texas. In fact, if the mental health professional warns the third party (the potential victim), they are liable for breach of confidentiality. They may choose to notify authorities, however they are not required to do so.

David C said...

I thought of the Flynn effect too when reading this too, but I don't see how it proves or even gives evidence to suggest psychology is junk science. The problem with the Flynn effect is that it means IQ is a moving barometer. The Supreme Court's ruling doesn't make sense with this in mind. A person who scores a 70 in the year 2000 is much smarter than a person who scores a 70 in 1950. Plus, brain capacity is not stable. It peaks in your mid-20s. So a 25-year old man who scores a 75 is smarter than a 50-year old man who scores an 80. Meanwhile, individual aggression and neurosis decreases as one ages. A smart 25-year old might be dangerous, but perfectly harmless at the senile age of 70. The age of the individual when they committed the crime can be more important than their IQ. I have no idea how much of this is incorporated into jury considerations, but my guess is very little.

Anonymous said...

This is not about liberal idealogy within the profession trying to punish those who testify for the death penalty. This guy was outrageous and should be held accountable.

Denkowski's testimony was focused solely on establishing criteria for MR. That would be IQ and adaptive behavior.

Flynn effect has nothing to do with it as IQ tests are routinely revised with new normative samples. Collective intelligence and abilities are moving targets (which really should, but doesn't, minimize the "soft" science labels).

IQ scores are not meant to translate across age groups (which is why there are different norms for different age groups). An IQ of 75 at age 30 and an IQ of 75 at age 60 are each based on comparisons of scores within the age group.

There is however a high correlation between individuals IQ scores as they age.

Unknown said...

This is really an interesting article. for the first time, i came to know that IQ Test score was used for securing a death penalty. However, I just have a query. How can you be sure that the score that particular test was accurate.

There are different types of IQ tests with each having their own scale. Hence two people have an IQ of 120 on different scales might not necessarily have the same intelligence level.

See this:

Anonymous said...

There are a limited number of tests which are actually agreed to provide a Full Scale IQ and there is generally a strong correlation between those measures overall IQ score. The merits of the validity of each IQ test are subject to scrutiny in the trial process.

Monogram Multicolor said...

To LosingMyMemory: I suspect you're thinking of the Tim Overton Gang. Overton was often defended by Webbie Flanangan, another gaudy character of the time. If he's not dead, Webbie is in prison.

Jesse Sublett said...

Hi there, LosingMyMemory, I suspect I am the writer you mentioned who has been working on a book about the Overton Gang, off and on, for a number of years. My name is Jesse Sublett. Also, to the person who said John Webster Flanagan is either dead or in prison, he is neither. He was released a few years ago. He's around town. He has nine lives and then some.