Law Review: Junk Mental Health Science and the Texas Death Penalty

Junk science is “enabling and perpetuating grave miscarriages of justice” in Texas death-penalty cases. So concludes Professor James Acker in his article, Snake Oil With A Bite: The Lethal Veneer of Science and Texas’s Death Penalty, published in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Acker’s article highlights the heightened risks of injustice from pseudo-science and junk science in capital cases in Texas, one of the few states that conditions death eligibility upon a finding of the defendant’s future dangerousness. Acker writes that, “at virtually every ... stage of the state’s capital punishment process,” Texas prosecutors “have alternately enlisted expert witnesses and scientists who have helped move accused and convicted offenders progressively closer to the execution chamber, and ignored or discounted scientific norms and developments inconsistent with securing and carrying out capital sentences. All too often, the determinations made in support of death sentences are of dubious reliability—including opinions and conclusions based on what many would agree to qualify as junk science—thus greatly enhancing the risk of miscarriages of justice ....”

Acker’s article discusses Texas’s long history of abusing expert testimony in support of execution, starting with the case of Estelle v. Smith, in which Dr. James Grigson — later nicknamed “Dr. Death” — evaluated Ernest Smith for his competency to stand trial, did not notify counsel of the evaluation, failed to advise Smith of his right to remain silent, and then testified in the penalty phase “that Smith was a severe sociopath, that his condition could not be treated, and that he ‘is going to go ahead and commit other similar or same criminal acts if given the opportunity to do so.’” The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Smith’s death sentence in 1981 for violations of his right to counsel and his constitutional privilege against compelled self-incrimination. Two years later, in Barefoot v. Estelle, the Court permitted the use of psychiatric predictions of future dangerousness, despite warnings by the American Psychiatric Association that such testimony was speculative and highly unreliable. Grigson went on to testify in 167 capital cases, repeatedly responding to hypothetical questions posed by prosecutors (even after he was expelled from state and national professional associations because of this practice) that defendants whose institutional records he had never reviewed and whom he had never evaluated were certain to commit future acts of violence. Texas has also misused expert mental health testimony in capital cases to falsely argue that capital defendants posed an increased threat to society because of their race or ethnicity, Acker writes. He describes the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a clinical psychologist who testified in seven cases that defendants were more likely to pose a danger to society because they were black or Latino. The Texas Attorney General’s office ultimately conceded error in all but one of those cases. Duane Buck’s case, however, reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Robert condemned Quijano’s testimony as “powerful racial stereotyping.”

The Texas courts also systemically disregarded scientific standards or otherwise abused expert mental health testimony in determinations of intellectual disability and competency to be executed, Acker says. In the case of Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court declared Texas’s approach to intellectual disability to be unconstitutional and ordered a reconsideration of Bobby Moore’s intellectual disability claim. With the prosecution, the defense, and multiple mental health groups all agreeing that Moore is intellectually disabled, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nevertheless upheld his death sentence. Finally, Acker writes, the state’s approach to competency has been an outlier, deeming Scott Panetti — who had been “hospitalized more than a dozen times [for mental illness and] been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and grandeur” — competent to stand trial, to represent himself, and to be executed. Texas “has alternatively coopted, disregarded, and subverted science and prevailing disciplinary norms of the mental health professions,” Acker concludes. “The death penalty in Texas, imbued with powerful symbolism and political significance, has succeeded not only in condemning offenders, but also the principled teachings of science. ... Science and politics are a deadly mixture, in the nature of snake oil with a bite.”

(James R. Acker, Snake Oil with a Bite: The Lethal Veneer of Science and Texas’ Death Penalty, 81 Albany Law Review 751 (2018).) See TexasSentencing, Mental Illness, and Intellectual Disability.