Psychological Evaluation of Death Row Inmates

By Gunn, Harry E. | Judicature, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Psychological Evaluation of Death Row Inmates


Gunn, Harry E., Judicature


The death row psychologist works with persons who have been or might be given a death sentence-providing therapy, interviewing family members, and giving psychological tests. These tests, referred to as "death row exams," are used to help answer important questions, such as: Was the accused competent to stand trial? Can he or she assist in his or her defense? Is his or her personality consistent with the crime? Does he or she understand the concept of right and wrong? Is there an issue of sanity? Whatever the issue, it is important for judges to know about death row exams. This article explains some of the procedures death row psychologists use to conduct them.

Psychologists use a variety of techniques to compile information on death row inmates, based on the individual approaches they develop through experience. As long as the information is accurate and objective, the specific approach is irrelevant. Standardized approaches, however, do offer the advantage of enabling examiners to know precisely what information has been obtained. This can be vital, since often a case involves two examiners: one hired by the defense and another by the prosecution.

Following are explanations of the most commonly used diagnostic approaches.

Case history

The most widely used technique is the case history, which requires availability of other information sources, including school and medical records. Sometimes examiners can obtain useful information by comparing this historical data with current evaluation data. For example, one of my clients tested very low on an intelligence test but had tested very high on school tests when she was age 10. After obtaining her medical reports, we were able to pinpoint when she lost a great degree of cognitive functioning.

A case history can also provide important family information. A child's behavior can change dramatically after a divorce or the death of a parent. I recall a difficult teenaged client whose personality appeared to change right after his father left the family. Suddenly this young man senselessly rebelled against his mother and any sort of control she tried to exert. Those who knew him drew a variety of conclusions: that he wanted to get back at his mother for his father leaving, that he wanted to drive his mother away, that he wanted to live with his father. By reviewing his case history, however, we determined that he was testing his mother to gauge her commitment to him. Once we convinced him that his mother would not abandon him, he was fine. Knowledge of subjects' behaviors as children and youth is helpful in understanding later behavior.

These days, many examiners administer case histories through the use of a computer program or printed form that the client fills out alone. The argument is often that this allows for objectivity. I disagree-my experience shows that people do not open up without some sort of one-on-one interaction. Without that personal touch, people often become defensive and hold back important data.

To illustrate, consider the history of a man who had exhibited major behavioral changes. He had always been calm, collected, and cooperative, and a successful salesperson at his company. Gradually, though, he began to change; his temper often flared at inappropriate times, he did not seem to have time for others, and he was irritable when people asked him questions. His boss called his wife to inquire about marital problems. She reported none, but noted the same behavioral changes.

At his yearly physical, the man seemed to have no medical problems, and indicated on his check-in form that he was not drinking or using drugs. When the nurse went over the form with him again, he clarified that he did not drink or use drugs anymore. The astute nurse finally asked him how long it had been since he had used alcohol or drugs, and he said, "several weeks." We later learned that he was an on-and-off substance abuser whose body could no longer tolerate any alcohol. …

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