A recent case before the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists resulted in the reprimand of a psychologist who used unscientific methods in his evaluations of 16 inmates who were sentenced to the death penalty. The inmates, who were evaluated for intellectual disability, were found to have inflated intelligence estimates as a result of the psychologist’s unusual and arguably unprofessional test interpretation methods. Since the United States Supreme Court ruled that executing individuals with mental retardation is in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, psychologists have increasingly become involved in the evaluation of intellectual disability in the inmate population.  Given the significance of these evaluations to the individual being evaluated (literally a matter of life and death) it is incumbent upon the professionals involved to ensure that they are using the most appropriate and scientific methods possible. “Reaching” beyond the data and/or utilizing techniques that don’t meet appropriate scientific, theoretical, or psychometric basis is simply unacceptable.

There are a number of important resources for forensic psychologists who are involved in conducting evaluations for the courts. Perhaps most important are the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists, first published in 1991 in Law and Human Behavior and currently undergoing revision (most recent revision is March 2011). In addition to these Specialty Guidelines, there is the recent Best Practices in Forensic Mental Health Assessment book series, published by Oxford, as well as numerous Guidelines developed by the American Psychological Association for various aspects of practice.

It is important for legal professionals who retain or work with forensic psychologists to ensure that they have an understanding of the relevant practices. Clearly, the legal professionals in the Texas case were on top of their game as they lodged a complaint about the psychologist’s practices with the Texas licensing board. Recently, there has been increasing commentary by some capital defenders about the need to ensure that the mental health (and other) experts that they retain have a full understanding of all the relevant issues involved and are employing the best methods possible. With legal professionals being encouraged to take a more active role in determining the strengths, weaknesses, and caveats involved in forensic assessment and the various assessment techniques used, forensic psychologists and other mental health professionals involved in conducting these evaluations need to ensure that they have a full and complete understanding of the relevant issues and that they are using the best practices available. Continuing Education and training opportunities exist across the country for forensic psychologists and other mental health professionals involved in evaluations for the courts.

For the full story on the Texas case, please see the link below: