Texas psychologist George Denkowski will never again evaluate the IQ of death row defendants to determine whether they are mentally disabled — and thus protected from execution — or not. The Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists has finally issued him a long-anticipated reprimand. He will also pay a fine of $5,500. All of which is good news for the fourteen inmates on Death Row who Denkowski, using highly criticized and faulty methods, determined were not mentally handicapped. But the decision comes too late for two inmates who were already executed after Denkowski found them mentally capable.
Last January, in a Texas Observer cover story, Investigative Fund reporter Reneé Feltzexposed the questionable methods and junk science used by psychologist George Denkowski in an article about the Texas death penalty case of Mexican immigrant Daniel Plata. In the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling, the Supreme Court stated that “executions of mentally retarded criminals are cruel and unusual.” Defense lawyers called Denkowski “Dr. Death” for finding twenty-one of the twenty-nine low-IQ inmates he has worked with to be mentally capable — and thus eligible for the death penalty. Feltz showed that he routinely inflated the inmates’ IQ scores through faulty methods.
In the Plata case, Denkowski repeatedly manipulated standardized tests to falsely determine that Plata had an IQ of 77, after a previous tester had found he had a score of 65 — well below 70, the cut-off point for mental retardation. In his statement, appellate judge Brock Kent Ellis found that Denkowski’s evidence “must be disregarded due to fatal errors.” Among other irregularities in Denkowski’s method, he had generated an IQ score of 70, decided it was invalid based on his own opinions of Plata’s intelligence, and simply estimated a new, higher score.
In its 2010 diagnostic manual, The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities said, “we strongly caution against practices such as those recommended by Denkowski.”
Defense attorney Robert Morrow told Feltz, “Denkowski pretty much thought that if you had engaged in criminal behavior you were not retarded.” Morrow represented Alfred DeWayne Brown, who remains on death row, but whose case may receive more scrutiny in light of last week’s settlement.
On April 13, Denkowski reached a settlement with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, which dismissed, with prejudice, the complaints against him, but nevertheless issued a formal reprimand. Under the terms of the settlement, Denkowski has agreed to never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases.
Defense attorneys for the fourteen inmates currently on death row believe that last week’s settlement will provide new hope that their clients, who they argue are mentally handicapped, may escape execution.
The decision is a small victory in the larger fight to bring justice to the death penalty system. State Senator Rodey Ellis of Houston, chairman of the Innocence Project, said that the courts should review every case involving Denkowski. “We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and sit by and watch while the state uses legal technicalities to execute these intellectually disabled men,” he said.
UPDATE 4/21/11: Democracy Now! aired a story this morning about the Denkowski decision, featuring death penalty defense attorney Kathryn Kase and Dr. Jerome Brown, the psychologist whose formal complaint resulted in Denkowksi’s agreement to step down.