Updated, April 4, 2012:
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today ordered a Harris County criminal court to re-evaluate whether death row inmate Coy Wayne Wesbrook is intellectually competent enough to face execution for the murders he was convicted of in 1998.
Wesbrook was sentenced to death for the 1997 fatal shootings of his ex-wife and three men. He appealed his death sentence, raising claims that he was mentally retarded. His claims were denied in 2007 after Dr. George Denkowski testified as an expert for the state in his case.
The state's highest court has ordered similar reviews in at least two other death penalty cases involving Denkowksi, who was reprimanded last year for his work. (See story below.)
(12/15/2011) — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday ordered lower courts to review two death penalty cases that involved a psychologist who was reprimanded earlier this year for using questionable methods to determine whether defendants were intellectually competent enough to face capital punishment.
"What we're seeing is a growing awareness on the part of the Court of Criminal Appeals for scientific integrity in criminal cases," said Kathryn Kase, interim executive director of the Texas Defender Services, which represents death row inmates. "The evidence of retardation in both of these cases is pretty compelling."
The state's highest criminal court sent the cases of Steven Butler and John Matamoros back to Harris County courts to re-evaluate the evidence used to sentence the two men to death. Dr. George Denkowski examined both of the men and told the juries they did not suffer from mental retardation.
In April of this year, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists (TSBEP), issued a reprimand against Denkowksi, whose methods were widely criticized. Denkowksi 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. The psychologist admitted no wrongdoing and defended his practice. But defense lawyers were hopeful that the reprimand would prompt the courts to review other cases where juries relied on Denkowski's evaluations to hand down death sentences.
Denkowski evaluated 14 inmates who are now on Texas’ death row — and two others who were subsequently executed — and found them intellectually competent enough to face the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that states cannot execute mentally handicapped people. The court, though, left it to the states to create guidelines for determining whether a person is mentally handicapped. Texas courts have generally adopted a three-part definition that requires the convicted inmate to have below average intellectual function, lack adaptive behavior skills and to have had those problems from a young age.
Prosecutors regularly relied on Denkowski to perform psychological evaluations to determine whether a murder suspect would be eligible for execution. But in 2009, other psychologists and defense lawyers complained to the TSBEP that Denkowski used unscientific methods that artificially inflated intelligence scores to make defendants eligible for the death penalty.
In his 2006 evaluation of Steven Butler, who was convicted in the shooting death of a store clerk, Denkowski rejected other IQ test scores that indicated Butler was well below average intelligence. He discounted behavioral evaluations from Butler’s family and friends, who said that Butler couldn’t understand the rules of basketball, had to have others read menus for him and that he had failed basic classes.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Butler’s execution pending the outcome of the complaint against Denkowksi. And on Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said it was acting on its own initiative to remand the case to the trial court in Harris County and "allow it the opportunity to re-evaluate its initial findings, conclusions, and recommendation in light of the Denkowski Settlement Agreement."
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had also stayed the execution of Matamoros, who was convicted in 1992 of stabbing to death a 70-year-old Houston man. As in the Butler case, the criminal appeals court said it was taking initiative to send the case back for re-evaluation based on the psychologist's reprimand.
Kase said she hoped the court would also order re-evaluation of the other death penalty cases in which Denkowski examined the defendants.
"Exonerations, I think, have caused the court to become concerned about the integrity of forensic evidence," she said. "That’s really, really important here, where the decision about whether someone has retardation is a matter of life and death."