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2011-04-21

"Dr. Death" Agrees to Stop Evaluating Mentally Disabled Texas Death Row Prisoners

Guests

Kathryn Kase, attorney with the Texas Defender Service. Dr. George Denkowski said her client, Daniel Plata, was eligible for execution, but a judge later said the evaluation was full of "fatal errors" and commuted Plata’s death sentence to life.

Dr. Jerome Brown, a clinical psychologist who worked as an expert for the defense on five death penalty cases in which Denkowski worked for the prosecution. He filed the complaint that ultimately led Denkowksi to stop evaluating people in criminal cases.

Renee Feltz, new Democracy Now! producer. Her exposé of Dr. Denkowski for The Texas Observer magazine, supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, was a finalist for a 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award.

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Last Friday, Texas reprimanded a psychologist who used what critics say were unscientific methods to examine at least 25 Texas death row prisoners for intellectual disabilities, two of whom were later executed. Dr. George Denkowski was the go-to psychologist for prosecutors who wanted to prove defendants were not mentally handicapped — and therefore eligible for the death penalty. Democracy Now! first covered Dr. Denkowski in January 2010 in a video report by Renée Feltz that accompanied her story for The Texas Observer magazine. For an update, we’re joined by Texas Defender Service attorney, Kathryn Kase, and by Dr. Jerome Brown, the psychologist filed the complaint that ultimately resulted in Denkowski’s agreement to stop evaluating people in criminal cases. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to developments in Texas that could stop so-called "mentally retarded" criminals from being executed. Last Friday, Texas reprimanded a psychologist who used what critics say were unscientific methods to examine at least 25 death row prisoners for intellectual disabilities, two of whom were later executed. In a settlement, Dr. George Denkowski agreed to stop performing similar evaluations in criminal cases and to pay a fine of $5,500.

Dr. Denkowski was the go-to psychologist for prosecutors who wanted to prove defendants were not mentally handicapped — and therefore eligible for the death penalty. His reliability earned him the nickname "Dr. Death" among defense lawyers.

Democracy Now! first reported on Dr. Denkowski in January 2010, when we played video of him evaluating then-death row prisoner Daniel Plata.

DR. GEORGE DENKOWSKI: What does the term "mental retardation" mean to you?

DANIEL PLATA: [inaudible]

DR. GEORGE DENKOWSKI: What does the term "mental retardation" mean to you? Tell me what you think it is.

DANIEL PLATA: Somebody who’s — who don’t know much, I mean, don’t know what other people don’t know.

DR. GEORGE DENKOWSKI: OK, that’s kind of generally it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. George Denkowski testing Daniel Plata. A judge later said the evaluation was full of fatal errors and commuted Plata’s death sentence to life.

The video was produced by Renée Feltz and accompanied her story for The Texas Observer magazine, which was supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. The story was a finalist for the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. Well, Renée has just joined the Democracy Now! team. She is a producer here.

Congratulations on the award and, most importantly, the work that you’re doing, Renée. Let’s talk about the significance of this latest development around Dr. Denkowski.

RENÉE FELTZ: I think it is pretty significant. The U.S. Supreme Court said in 2008 we’re not supposed to be executing mentally retarded prisoners, and yet Texas basically continued to do so, with the help of Dr. Denkowski. With this reprimand, he’s essentially out of business. That doesn’t bring back those who were executed with his assistance, but it’s still good news and I think an example of how journalism and reporting like this can make a difference.

I wanted to bring into the conversation two people that I talked to for my story. They helped to expose Dr. Denkowski’s questionable evaluations. Kathryn Kase is an attorney with the Texas Defender Service. She represents Daniel Plata, who we saw in that video and heard. We also have with us Dr. Jerome Brown. He’s a psychologist who worked as an expert for the defense on five death penalty cases in which Denkowski worked for the prosecution. He filed the complaint that ultimately led Denkowski to agree to stop evaluating people in criminal cases.

Dr. Jerome Brown, I wanted to start with you and first get your reaction to the reprimand against Dr. George Denkowski on Friday.

DR. JEROME BROWN: Well, I have mixed feelings about it. I’m very pleased that Dr. Denkowski will no longer be using what I believe to be junk science to evaluate criminal defendants, but I’m also disappointed that he did not have to admit any wrongdoing, nor did the licensing board make a finding of wrongdoing. So, I guess there — again, my feelings are mixed about it.

RENÉE FELTZ: I see, Dr. Brown. And we also have Kathryn Kase with us. Kathryn, when I spoke with you for this story, I was talking to you about your client, Daniel Plata. But what do you think that this reprimand is going to mean for all of these other cases in which Dr. Denkowski was an expert witness?

KATHRYN KASE: It’s very difficult to say at this point. The fact remains, is that many of these men on death row have had their cases reviewed for mental retardation, and the courts rubber-stamped Dr. Denkowski’s findings, saying that these men didn’t have mental retardation. In the view of the Texas Defender Service, where I work, all of these men are entitled to have their cases re-reviewed. Whether the Texas legislature and the courts will agree, I can’t say. But it seems to me that while the Texas legislature is still in session and while these men are still alive, we need to push for review of Dr. Denkowski’s testing, because we know now, from the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, that it was not scientifically sound.

RENÉE FELTZ: And Dr. Brown, you worked on a case with Dr. Denkowski, the case of Michael Richard. Can you describe what in that case prompted you to file this complaint against Dr. Denkowski? Give us an example of what you observed that disturbed you.

DR. JEROME BROWN: Well, there were a number of things that were flawed about Dr. Denkowski’s methodology. I can give you one example. He decided that Mr. Richard was capable of utilizing a dictionary, which is an important self-help skill that is used in evaluating mental retardation. He decided that, because two dictionaries — a German dictionary and an English dictionary — was found in Mr. Richard’s cell. The problem with that is that he did not follow up with Mr. Richard as to why those dictionaries were there. It turns out that Mr. Richard could not use those dictionaries. He used them for stools to prop himself up against the door so he could look out the little slot in the door that was available.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Brown, how difficult was it for you to file a complaint against a colleague, to file this complaint against Dr. Denkowski that has led to his reprimand?

DR. JEROME BROWN: It was very difficult. I had never done anything like that before. I do not like doing this kind of thing. I respect my fellow professionals. But what Denkowski did was over the top. It was totally unacceptable. He could not continue.

AMY GOODMAN: And Kathryn Kase, what does this mean, as you defend death row prisoners? What does this mean for the future in Texas?

KATHRYN KASE: I hope that it means that judges will take seriously defense requests for experts who will assist the defense lawyers in these capital cases in unraveling the so-called scientific methods utilized by prosecution experts. In too many cases, judges come back and say to the defense lawyers, "Your experts are too expensive. Go get somebody cheaper." And then what happens is that people like George Carl Denkowski engage in shoddy science, and it’s not discovered until it’s too late. What do we say to the families of the men who were executed, who we believe had mental retardation? "We’re sorry"? That seems awfully slim comfort at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Can they sue? Can those families do something now? Do they have any recourse? And we just have five seconds.

KATHRYN KASE: It’s very difficult to say. Most experts in this situation have immunity, so probably not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Kathryn Kase, attorney with the Texas Defender Service, and Dr. Jerome Brown, clinical psychologist. And Renée, congratulations on your great work, Renée Feltz, who now joins us at Democracy Now!

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