Critics Assail Threat Predictions In Capital Cases


Arguing that Texas lets juries make life-or-death decisions based on evidence less reliable than a coin flip, a legal group says experts usually are wrong when they predict capital murder defendants will be dangerous in the future. The San Antonio Express-News says a report from the Texas Defender Service focuses on the pivotal moment when juries consider whether the killer is likely to murder again. Only if jurors answer “yes,” can the defendant be sentenced to die.

The defender service examined 155 cases and concluded that psychiatric experts were wrong 95 percent of the time when, testifying for prosecutors, they depicted defendants as chronic threats. Texas is one of just three states that require such evidence in death penalty trials.

The group urges legislators to revise the system and compares the “future dangerousness” question to crude tests in medieval trials. “We would do just as well to drop people in boiling water to see whether they float,” said Andrea Keilen, the group’s deputy director.

The defender service found that only 8 of 155 inmates classfied as dangerous committed serious assaults in an average of 14 years served after their convictions. Twenty percent had no record of disciplinary problems, and 75 perrcent broke relatively minor rules.

Some death penalty supporters were skeptical about the findings. Dianne Clements of the victims’ advocacy group Justice For All said she considered the question about future dangerousness a hurdle, not a help, for prosecutors. She questioned whether anything can be concluded from watching inmates who are under guard and, in many instances, spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells.


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