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Death Sentence Reviews Leave Unsettled Issues

Defense lawyers argue that judges in Harris County — ordered to review a psychologist's work in two death penalty cases — are simply rubber-stamping the conclusions of the psychologist, who was reprimanded last year.

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) Derrick Charles  5) Steven Butler 6) John Matamoros 7) Joel Escobedo 8) Jamie McCoskey 9) Warren Rivers  10) Tomas Gallo  11) Kim Ly Lim 12) Alfred Brown 13) Coy Wesbrook

Stanley Schneider was shocked last year when Texas’ highest criminal court sent his death row client an early Christmas gift of sorts, ordering the trial court to re-examine evidence from a psychologist who had decided that John Reyes Matamoros was mentally fit to face execution.

“We were hopeful their sending it back would mean something,” Schneider said.

But his hope flagged in March when, he said, two Harris County state district judges virtually rubber-stamped Dr. George Denkowski’s findings in the cases of Matamoros and a fellow death row inmate, Steven Butler. Denkowski, the psychologist who testified in the cases of more than a dozen current Texas death row inmates that the convicted men were mentally fit for execution, was reprimanded last year after other psychologists and defense lawyers filed a complaint alleging that he had used discredited evaluation methods.

Lawyers for Matamoros and Butler, who have filed objections with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, say any findings by Denkowski should be disregarded. They said that the trial court judges — who are husband and wife — simply adopted Denkowski’s conclusions instead of examining reams of evidence from other psychologists that they said proved their clients were mentally retarded and ineligible for the death penalty.

“This is a perfect example of the state taking science and trying to prostitute it,” Schneider said, adding, “The role of the courts is to protect us from junk science.”

Judge Marc Brown, of Harris County District Court, who reviewed the Matamoros case, was in trial and did not respond to a request for comment. His wife, Judge Susan Brown, declined to comment on the Butler case because it is continuing. Calls to Denkowski were not returned.

But Roe Wilson, Harris County assistant district attorney, contended that the judges had disregarded Denkowski’s findings.

The judge’s findings in Butler’s case repeatedly refer to Denkowski’s findings, but Wilson said the references were “historical.”

“There was no consideration given and no mention given,” Wilson said.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2002 that states could not execute people who were mentally retarded. The court allowed states to decide on guidelines for determining whether a person was mentally retarded. Texas courts have adopted a three-part definition that requires the convicted inmate to have below-average intellectual function, to lack adaptive behavior skills and to have had these problems since an early age.

Denkowski conducted tests to determine whether defendants who might face the death penalty aligned with those definitions.

But other psychologists and defense lawyers complained that he artificially inflated intelligence scores to make defendants eligible for the death penalty. (Denkowski’s lawyer has said that he vigorously denies having violated any psychology board rules and that he used his best clinical judgment in making forensic evaluations.)

Last year, the Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists agreed to a settlement with Denkowski in which it reprimanded him, but he did not admit guilt. 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.

Since that reprimand, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has asked trial courts to review at least six cases that included Denkowski’s work to determine what effect it had had on the case.

Defense lawyers argue that Denkowski’s conclusions should be completely excluded from those reviews.

“You can talk all day long about how you don’t want junk science used in these cases, but when you’re confronted with it, you have to take active steps to make sure it hasn’t contaminated the case,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates.

The Butler and Matamoros cases are the first to be returned to the Court of Appeals.

Butler, who was also sentenced to life in prison for a separate conviction of aggravated sexual assault with a weapon, was sentenced to death in 1988 for the shooting death of Velma Clemons, a clerk at a dry-cleaning business.

Denkowski evaluated Butler, and he testified in the case in 2006. School records showed Butler had been classified as “educable but mentally retarded,” but Denkowski said nothing in the records indicated that he required special education. He noted that Butler could tell time and could recite his Social Security number, “highly atypical skills for a mentally retarded person.” He concluded that Butler’s I.Q. was borderline normal.

Similarly, Judge Susan Brown concluded that Butler’s poor academic performance reflected underachievement and poor choices, not lack of intellectual function. She also wrote that he had enough intellectual ability to plan, commit and then lie about the murder for which he was convicted.

Dick Burr, a defense lawyer, said the judge had ignored findings by experts hired by Butler’s lawyers, including Dr. Denis Keyes, a special education professor at the College of Charleston, and Dr. Jack Fletcher, a psychology professor at the University of Houston. Both found that Butler had a low I.Q. and was mentally retarded.  Fletcher — one of the psychologists who complained to the board about Denkowski’s work — said that Denkowski’s conclusion that Butler was mentally fit for execution “was based on outmoded, no-longer-accepted information.”

“Our evidence demonstrated very persuasively that Steven Butler has mental retardation,” Burr said.

Matamoros, whose criminal history included auto theft and burglary with intent to sexually assault, was convicted of the 1990 murder of 70-year-old Eddie Goebel, who was found in his bed with 25 stab wounds.

Denkowski concluded in 2006 that Matamoros was not mentally retarded. His low I.Q. scores and a psychologist’s finding in 1977 that at 14 Matamoros had a mild intellectual disability, Denkowski concluded, were a result of bilingualism and his rearing in a deprived environment.

Judge Marc Brown agreed, quoting from a federal court ruling in the case that in turn relied on Denkowski’s findings. Like Denkowski, the judge concluded that Matamoros’s ability to care for himself as an inmate and to plan and commit crimes also contradicted his claims of mental retardation.

Judge Brown’s findings discounted the evaluations of psychologists hired by Matamoros’s lawyers who found that he was mentally retarded.

Dr. Thomas Oakland, a psychologist and a professor at the University of Florida, reviewed Denkowski’s findings along with Judge Marc Brown’s ruling. Both, he said, showed a “reckless disregard” for established forensic psychology.

“Based upon my review of Denkowski’s affidavit and testimony, it is my opinion that Matamoros’s intelligence was and is significantly subaverage,” he wrote in an affidavit.

Wilson, the assistant district attorney in Harris County, disputed the inmates’ lawyers’ argument that the judges’ findings were largely copied from Denkowski’s work.

“I don’t think that is an accurate characterization, but that is something the Court of Criminal Appeals will determine,” she said.

Lawyers for Butler and Matamoros want the Court of Criminal Appeals to insist that the death row inmates’ claims be re-evaluated without any reliance on Denkowski’s work.

 Schneider said the decision by the Court of Appeals in the two cases would also send a signal to other judges who are reviewing cases in which Denkowski had made evaluations. He said he hoped the court would continue to reject forensic methods that had been proven unscientific.

“Their role has to be that of the supergatekeeper of forensic science,” Schneider said. “They have to say we will not allow a proceeding tainted by junk science to go forward.”

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