Dr. George Denkowsi evaluated sixteen Texas death row inmates before he was formally reprimanded in 2011 and fined $5,500 due to complaints that he used scientifically invalid methods to evaluate these inmates. Yet, despite this doctor’s doubtful methods, Texas is still fighting to kill one of the men evaluated by Denkowski. Whether Texas will succeed in this effort will now be decided by one of the most conservative courts of appeals in the country, according to an order issued yesterday by that same court.
The Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal” (although several states have exploited loopholes in this decision to execute intellectually disabled inmates anyway). In the wake of this decision, Texas hired Denkowsi as its expert witness during a hearing to determine whether or not a death row inmate named John Matamoros was intellectually disabled and therefore constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. Three other psychologists evaluated Matamoros and determined that he is intellectually disabled, while Denkowski claimed otherwise.
Since then, however, Denkowski’s methods have been discredited. As part of the settlement that led to the $5,500 fine, Denkowski also agreed that he would “not accept any engagement to perform forensic psychological services in the evaluation of subjects for mental retardation or intellectual disability in criminal proceedings.” As the New York Times explained in 2011, Denkowski relied on scientifically unproven methods to deem inmates fit for execution, sometimes relying on offensive stereotypes about the poor. Psychologists typically evaluate whether subjects have developed appropriate life skills as part of their determination of whether that individual is intellectually disabled. Denkowski, by contrast, claimed that “those who come from impoverished backgrounds may not have learned basic skills like using a thermometer or maintaining hygiene simply because those skills were not valued in their community.”
Though Matamoros will now have the opportunity to challenge his death sentence in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he still faces a steep uphill climb. The Fifth Circuit is a deeply conservative court will a long history of skepticism towards death row inmates raising constitutional claims. Several of the court’s judges once wrote that a man could be executed even though his lawyer slept through much of his trial, and its former chief judge is currently under investigation for allegedly claiming that African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to violent crime.