Bioethics Blogs

Relying on Psychological Assessments do not Right Death Penalty Wrongs for the Intellectually Disabled

Although the death penalty is on the decline in the United States, the case of James Rhodes highlights the ethical quagmire facing forensic psychiatrists and psychologists whose evaluations contribute whether persons with intellectual disabilities convicted of murder will live or die.

In addition to the increasingly familiar racial biases and legal flaws in death penalty convictions and use of lethal injection, according to Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. Director of Fordham University’s Centerfor Ethics Education, little attention has been paid to the lack of professional consensus surrounding the validity and reliability of IQ tests in general and for racial minorities in particular, disagreement over the use of absolute cut-off scores to determine intellectual disability, and the inherent fallibility of tests to determine the probability of future violence.

“Professional evaluations are not a panacea for inconsistent, uninformed and often racially biased jury decisions,” notes Fisher, “rather than providing a fair and neutral assessment of mental ability forensic assessments are contributing to inconsistencies that lethally violate the human rights of convicted criminals in capital cases.”

For more information on the ethics of psychologists’ involvement in death penalty evaluations – particularly for defendants with mental disabilities Dr. Fisher’s 2013 article in Ethics & Behavior entitled “Human Rights and Psychologists’ Involvement in Assessments Related to Death Penalty Cases.”

Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. is the Marie Ward Doty University Chair, Professor of Psychology, and Director of Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education. She chaired the 2002 revision of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code and is the author of Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists, now in it’s fourth edition, from Sage Publications.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.