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Discussion: Should Forensic Psychology Professionals Conduct Work Related to the Death Penalty?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has raised questions about whether psychologists should accept work related to the death penalty due to ethical guidelines. Although the APA has not restricted psychologists from working in this area, the ethical issues are important to explore. Forensic psychology professionals may encounter opportunities to conduct a variety of death penalty-related work tasks, such as mitigation and other defendant investigations, jury selection for the sentencing phase, expert witnesses or consultants for the prosecution or defense, and research studies that examine features of the death penalty and its effects. In most jurisdictions that enact the death penalty, local statutes require that the competency of the defendant must be examined by a licensed mental health professional prior to execution. Licensed forensic psychologists can conduct death penalty competency evaluations that explore whether a defendant is sufficiently competent to be executed. In order to conduct these tasks in accordance with ethical guidelines, the forensic psychology professional or forensic psychologist must be familiar with ethical issues relevant to the death penalty. Important first steps in exploring ethical issues are being aware of one’s empathy-bias regarding the death penalty and how ethical dilemmas might arise during death penalty work.
For your Discussion, you will explore issues surrounding the involvement of forensic psychology professionals in death penalty cases.
Briefly summarize your opinion about whether forensic psychology professionals are able to ethically conduct work related to the death penalty.

Explain whether your opinion changes based on the type of task, i.e., competency for execution evaluations, mitigation investigations, or research about the death penalty.
Support your opinion with references to the Learning Resources, ethical guidelines, and other scholarly resources.

APA Handbook of Forensic Psychology: Vol. 2. Criminal Investigation, Adjudication, and Sentencing Outcomes,
B. L. Cutler and P. A. Zapf (Editors-in-Chief)
Copyright © 2015 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.

C H A P T E R 1 7

Craig Haney , Joanna Weill, and Mona Lynch

The death penalty occupies a unique position in
social science and law. Despite the fact that it
directly affects only a relatively small number of
people, it is one of the most extensively studied
aspects of the criminal justice system. There are
several reasons for this high level of scholarly interest,
including the fact of what is at stake in death penalty
cases could not be more profound—literally life and
death. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
expressed it in the landmark Furman v. Georgia
(1972) case: “The penalty of death differs from all
other forms of criminal punishment, not in degree,
but in kind. It is unique in its total irrevocability.
It is unique in its rejection of rehabilitation of the
convict as a basic purpose of criminal justice. And it
is unique, fi nally, in its absolute renunciation of all
that is embodied in our concept of humanity” (p. 306).


Those high stakes and the extraordinary nature of the
punishment help to account for the fact that death
penalty cases have established many key legal prece-
dents, establishing benchmarks for fairness and due
process in the rest of the criminal justice system.
In addition to their dramatic stakes and the signifi –
cance of the legal precedents that they generate,
capital cases often involve the highest profi le, most
sensationalized case facts, sometimes attracting
intense public, political, and media interest and,
often, the corresponding attention of legal and social
science scholars. Scholarly interest also has focused

on another unique aspect of capital punishment—
the special set of psychological conditions that must
obtain to enable a group of average citizens to ratio-
nally authorize the death of another and the various
psycho-legal mechanisms that govern this truly
extraordinary decision-making process.

We have divided our review of capital
punishment-related psychological research into
three very broad areas. The fi rst pertains to the
overall operation of the death penalty in the United
States—more specifi cally, what our system of capital
punishment tells us about the nature of criminal cul-
pability and so-called death eligibility, whether and
how the death penalty operates as a deterrent
to capital crime, and whether capital punishment is
imposed in a racially discriminatory manner. The
second broad area of empirical research pertains to
death penalty attitudes and the role that they play in
the administration of capital punishment. Because
capital punishment is both controversial an

ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, 23(1), 62–66

Copyright © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1050-8422 print / 1532-7019 online

DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2013.757954

A Reasoned Argument Against Banning Psychologists’
Involvement in Death Penalty Cases

Stanley L. Brodsky
Department of Psychology
The University of Alabama

Tess M.S. Neal
Department of Psychiatry

University of Massachusetts Medical School

Michelle A. Jones
Department of Psychology
The University of Alabama

Prompted by the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu
Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethics Code Standard 1.02 to
prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that would “justify or defend violating human
rights.” The revision to Standard 1.02 followed APA policy statements condemning torture and
prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in such activities that constitute a violation of human
rights (APA, 2010). Cogent questions have subsequently been raised about the involvement of
psychologists in other activities that could arguably lead to human rights violations, even if the
activity in question is legal. Although this language was designed to be expansive in defining
psychologists’ ethical responsibilities, it remains difficult to determine whether and how Standard
1.02 might apply to a particular situation. In the present analysis, we focus on the question of
whether psychologists should be involved in death penalty cases.

We assert that the APA should not take an ethical stand against psychologists’ participation
in death penalty cases. Our position is not intended necessarily to reflect approval or disap-
proval of the death penalty, although we recognize that there are serious flaws in the American
legal system with regard to capital punishment. Our perspective is that psychologists have an
important role in the administration of due process in capital cases. We oppose a bright-line rule
prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in death penalty cases for several reasons. We begin by
considering whether the death penalty per se constitutes a human rights violation, move on to
describe the basic functioning of the legal system, analyze how the involvement of psychologists

Correspondence should be addressed to Stanley L. Brodsky, Department of Psychology, The University of Alabama,
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. E-mail:


actually affects the capital trial process, and end with providing practical advice for psychologists’
provision of ethical services in capital trials.


Many argue that capital punishment violates the human rights of the person sentenced to death.
Others argue that from a societal perspective the offender violated the human rights of the vic-
tim(s) and therefore must be held accountable. The American legal system, reflecting public
opinion, holds that the death penalty per se is not a human ri

ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, 23(1), 67–70

Copyright © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1050-8422 print / 1532-7019 online

DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2013.757958

Beyond Abu Ghraib: The 2010 APA Ethics Code Standard
1.02 and Competency for Execution Evaluations

Bronwen Lichtenstein
Department of Criminal Justice

The University of Alabama

In 2011—a full year after the American Psychological Association (APA) amended its ethics code
to prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that justified or defended violating human
rights (APA, Ethics Committee, 2010)—the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists
censured forensic psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for artificially inflating the IQ of 14 defen-
dants as proof of competency for execution (CFE; Grissom, 2011). Denkowski was also censured
for methods that deviated from standard psychological practice; that is, he developed his own
methods rather than use scientifically valid measures of life skills and adaptive functioning. The
psychologist had manipulated two measures: inmates’ IQ scores (which must be above 70 in
order to be mentally competent for execution) and their level of adaptive functioning, tradition-
ally evaluated on the basis of collateral information from relatives and close associates rather
than the assessor. Denkowski’s testing and methods were held to be a clear violation of standard
practice and ethics for psychology. Out of 14 inmates whom Denkowski had evaluated as legally
competent for execution, two were executed; the others await execution.

Denkowski was reputed to be the go-to psychologist in producing the desired result for the
state (Feltz, 2010). However, he had not started out that way. Early in his career as an evaluator, he
was dismissed by the state after finding an inmate’s IQ too low to meet the standard of being too
mentally impaired for execution. The state then hired an expert for the case who disagreed with
Denkowski, and the inmate was duly executed. This early experience was apparently an object
lesson for Denkowski, who began to testify so reliably for legal CFE that he earned a reputation
for being “Texas prosecutors’ favorite tester [with] almost Dr. Death status” (Feltz, 2010).

The case raises two essential points in terms of psychology’s ethical role in evaluations
for CFE. First, Denkowski was willing to falsify data for the prosecution, purportedly, in part,
because the work was both plentiful and lucrative (Feltz, 2010). Second, Texas actively sought
mental health experts whose evaluations would lead to execution. The state was exposed as a
willful director in obtaining the results it wanted from CFE, and the psychologist was exposed
in terms of financial motivation and perhaps a belief system aligned with the prosecution.
Deitchman, Kennedy, and Beckham’s (1991) study of forensic psychiatrists and psychologists
in Florida found that supporters of the death penalty were more willing than opponents to testify
in CFE evaluations, especia

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