Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of a Texas man and agreed to review his lawyer’s claims that his trial was tainted by testimony from a psychologist who said his race was an indicator that he could kill in the future.
Buck was scheduled to receive lethal injection Thursday evening for a July 1995 double murder, but his lawyer was able to get his sentence delayed by the Supreme Court on the basis that Buck’s 1997 trial was tainted when psychologist Walter Quijano said, under cross-examination, that being African-American raises his chances of future dangerousness. Future dangerousness is a key factor jurors consider before assessing a death penalty. In Buck’s case and several others, Quijano’s testimony introduced race into deliberations. In 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn identified Buck’s case as one of six that may have been tainted by Quijano’s racially degrading testimony.
“The problem with psychiatric predictions of future dangerousness is that the courts can assume they are more credible than opinions given by just any old lay person off the street,” said Lee Spiller, Policy Director for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights-Texas. “Quite frankly it would be more honest to put a bunch of 12 year-old girls in the courtroom with a Ouija board. At least people would know to question what was being done.”
In a number of other capital punishment cases, psychiatric testimony has been highly controversial and has been proven to be completely incorrect. In a case made famous by the documentary film, The Thin Blue Line, Randall Dale Adams was exonerated after being sentenced to die for the shooting death of a Dallas police officer. At his trial, psychiatrist James Grigson testified that Adams would continue to kill. Grigson, who earned the nickname “Dr. Death” for his testimony that helped send over 100 men to death row, would even deliver diagnoses for defendants he never met in person.
“It’s time to end our judicial system’s reliance on mental health testimony,” said Spiller. “There is hardly any aspect of mental health testimony that hasn’t been fraught with scandal, yet we see it play out not only in death penalty cases but in family court, the insanity defense, and a host of other types of cases. Life and death should revolve around facts, not vague opinions rendered by experts paid by one side or another.”