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Forensic Mental Health Assessments in Death Penalty Cases

by David DeMatteo, Daniel C. Murrie, Natalie M. Anumba, and Michael E. Keesler (2011). Forensic Mental Health Assessments in Death Penalty Cases. New York: Oxford University Press. 447 + xii pages.

Mental health practitioners have long had the ability to prepare assessments of persons appearing before the criminal justice system. Still, this aspect of criminal justice processing and decisionmaking has been largely underexamined until recently. Over the past few decades, the processing of death penalty cases, as well as more typical pretrial and sentencing deliberations, has resulted in the enlarged practice of integrating mental health, social work, and other therapeutic and treatment options into the routine consideration of various sanctioning options.

In this valuable resource volume, psychologists DeMatteo, Murrie, Anumba, and Keesler open with the observation that "forensic mental health professionals are now conducting assessments at every stage of death penalty proceedings, ranging from pretrial evaluations to determine eligibility for the death penalty to postsentencing evaluations conducted closer to the date of execution." The purpose of this volume is to offer forensic mental health professionals important, useful information on the history of forensic mental health assessments, emerging death penalty litigation, an overview of influential capital court cases, key ethical issues, the conduct of different mental health assessments, a review of mitigation issues in capital cases, evaluations of future risks of violence, and sample forensic reports suggesting the current state of "best practices."

De Matteo and his colleagues, who are affiliated with Drexel University's Program in Law and Psychology and with the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, offer 10 chapters on forensic mental health assessments that can be conducted throughout the process of capital litigation. The opening chapter provides an overview of the book. The following three chapters establish a foundation for subsequent chapters. In these, the authors address the "multilayered capital litigation process" (source of law, key players, death-qualified juries, trial and sentencing procedures);   important state and lower Federal court decisions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court decisions; and ethical standards that are applicable with psychologists and psychiatrists who prepare forensic mental health assessments. Next, individual chapters examine specific types of death penalty cases. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of capital punishment for mentally retarded offenders. In one chapter, De Matteo et al. define mental retardation in the context of this decision, and describe evaluations used to assess whether an otherwise death-penalty eligible offender is mentally retarded. They also engage the reader with a discussion of barriers confronting evaluators related to the intellectual functioning and adaptive deficits of prisoners.  The authors discuss ethical parameters and practice guidelines involving evaluation of an offender's "competence for execution." In another chapter, the authors dissect the various functions forensic mental health evaluators conduct during the sentencing phase of capital proceedings, including communication and testimony on their findings. The authors also examine the use of violence risk assessments in capital litigation hearings.

De Mateo et al. provide a comprehensive list of 32 principles of forensic mental health assessment that cover general, preparation, data collection, data interpretation,  written communication, and testimony-related aspects of this work. In preparation for such work, for example, the authors suggest identifying relevant issues, accepting referrals only within your areas of expertise, declining referrals when evaluator objectivity is uncertain, clarifying the evaluator's role with those attorneys associated with the case, making financial arrangements clear, obtaining all appropriate authorizations, avoiding dual roles in the case, determining the specific role you will undertake, and selecting the most appropriate model to guide data gathering,  interpretation, and communication. 

Forensic Mental Health Assessments in Death Penalty Cases concludes with nearly 100 pages of sample reports written by various experts on different dimensions of capital litigation.  "Given differences in training, education, and perspective among forensic practitioners," the authors note, "it is not surprising that forensic reports often differ considerably in content, style, and length." The authors feel, nonetheless, that these samples reflect "best practices." Each contributor prefaces their reports with background information on each particular sample. The samples provided cover Atkins-related, capital mitigation, and competency for execution evaluations. The authors also conclude with an extensive list of references for the volume. 


Posted Fri, Aug 26 2011 2:11 PM by Tracey Vessels


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