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County Used Doctor After Methods Challenged

Harris County paid a forensic psychologist who was reprimanded earlier this month more than $300,000 to test defendants for intellectual disabilities from 2002 until 2008.

Dr. George Denkowski conducted psychological exams for more than a dozen current death row inmates. 1) Anthony Pierce 2) Virgilio Maldonado 3) Calvin Hunter 4) John Matamoros 5) Derrick Charles 6) Kim Ly Lim 7) Coy Wesbrook 8) Joel Escobedo 9) Jamie McCoskey 10) Warren Rivers 11) Tomas Gallo 12) Steven Butler 13) Alfred Brown

Harris County paid Dr. George Denkowski, a forensic psychologist who was reprimanded earlier this month and agreed never again to perform death row evaluations in Texas, more than $300,000 to test defendants for intellectual disabilities from 2002 until 2008. And the county continued to pay Denkowksi even after a judge harshly rebuked his work, according to documents obtained by the Texas Defender Service.

Denkowski, a Fort Worth psychologist, evaluated 14 current Texas death row inmates and two who have been executed. His methods, though, came under intense scrutiny from defense lawyers and from other psychologists who said Denkowski used flawed techniques that artificially inflated disability scores, making defendants eligible for the death penalty. The evaluations started after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that states could not execute mentally disabled people.

As part of a settlement, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists this month issued a reprimand against Denkowski. He did not admit wrongdoing, but he agreed not to conduct intellectual disability evaluations in future criminal cases and to pay a fine of $5,500. In return, the board dismissed the complaints against him. An attorney for Denkowski has said he vigorously defends his practice.

The Harris County invoices, which the Texas Defender Service obtained through a public information request, include more than $20,000 the county paid to Denkowksi after a judge issued a scathing denouncement of the psychologist's methods and commuted the death sentence of inmate Daniel Plata to life in prison. From 2005 to 2007, Harris County paid Denkowski more than $20,000 to evaluate whether Plata was so mentally disabled he would be ineligible for the death penalty. Denkowski said Plata was not mentally disabled, and he was sentenced to death. But in September 2007, Harris County state district judge Mark Ellis concluded that "Dr. Denkowski invalidated the norms of the test by committing errors in administration and scoring." 

Despite the judge's ruling, Harris County used Denkowksi at least three more times, paying him more than $20,000 collectively in those cases, including one in which he concluded the defendant would be eligible for the death penalty. "For years, the Harris County district attorney's office turned a deaf ear to leading authorities who asserted that Denkowski's methodologies were not grounded in accepted science,” said Kathryn Kase, an attorney for Plata.

Denkowski was an expert witness for the prosecution in at least 25 capital and noncapital cases in Texas and around the country, according to the Defender Service. In some cases, he testified for the defense.

A spokeswoman for the Harris County district attorney's office did not immediately respond.

[UPDATE] In a written statement this afternoon, Harris County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Donna Hawkins said that Denkowski was used during the tenure of the previous district attorney, not during the term of District Attorney Pat Lykos. She said Denkowski evaluated 28 defendants charged with capital murder in Harris County before complaints against the doctor were filed with the psychology board. In some cases, she said, Denkowski found the defendants were mentally disabled and not eligible for the death penalty. "As with almost all expert witnesses testifying about mental retardation, Dr. Denkowski was questioned about his methodology. The experts called by the defense similarly were grilled about qualifications, methodology, and conclusions," she said.

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