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Psychologists and Assessments Related to Death Sentence Essay

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2022


A death penalty is a form of capital punishment that has been part of the American justice system since the colonial days. Many people have been executed for capital offenses such as murder and robbery with violence. Forensic psychology entails the integration of psychological knowledge and methodologies into civil and criminal legal questions (Hollin, 2019). Forensic psychologists are specially trained to conduct psychiatric evaluations, treatment, and even consultations pertinent to legal proceedings. Their involvement in cases involving death sentences has attracted ethical debates following the uncovering of the capital-penalty procedure’s flaws. The paper aims to explore human rights related to the controversy and the ethical implications associated with the dispute.

Human Rights about Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology has had its fair share of controversies when it comes to the death penalty offenders, especially regarding human rights. Sentencing one to death is considered to be a violation of one’s right to life as well as freedom from subjection to torture and inhumane treatment (Leong et al., 2017). Since forensic psychologists contribute to legal proceedings and assessment for future violence, it renders the defendants at the mercy of an unjust system and with much imperfection. These professionals only provide a psychiatric assessment of defendants, thus rendering them neutral and with no influence in determining death sentences by the jury or judge. However, their psychological input in the capital case still plays a significant role in influencing the jury or judge’s decision in the sentencing of a defendant.

Forensic psychologists play an important role in determining the legal ground on which a defendant may be prosecuted for an offense of a capital nature and sentenced to death. Therefore, they hold the ability to directly influence the direction with which the sentencing could assume. If done in a biased way, it may end up causing the unjust sentencing of the accused, consequently violating his or her right to life (Perlin, 2018). Incompetent prisoners may be subjected to medication to enhance their psychological analysis eligibility and eventually be executed. Forensic psychologists typically subject suspects to mental torture through these acts, which subsequently breach their fundamental human rights and freedom from torture.

Ethical Implications That May Arise from Both Sides: Defendants and Psychologists

The immanent fallibility of psychiatric tests may also account for the inequalities and arbitrariness in capital punishment proceedings. Many test scores that indicate cognitive impairment and other mental diseases are established on probabilities, i.e., the likelihood that an individual has a psychological disease is ascertained by the magnitude to which one’s outcomes are similar to that of others diagnosed with a similar condition. For instance, the Supreme court in Atkins did not delineate mental retardation but instead charged states to distinguish their definitions (Otto et al., 2017). This phenomenon consequently creates prospective inequalities during the assessment procedure. Even though there is a consensus that stipulates that the psychological retardation diagnosis requires one to have exhibited an amalgamation of below-average intellectual capacity and the deficiency of adaptive skills essential for an independent day-to-day living before eighteen years, inconsistencies in the lawful elucidation of mental retardations still exists. There are also contradictions among psychological health specialists on whether a 70 IQ score should be deemed an absolute cut-off point for psychiatric retardation.

Socio-economic disparities also contribute to the ethical implications of forensic psychologists’ involvement in capital cases. According to Otto et al. (2017), a DSM diagnosis of psychiatric retardation demands a documented patient history of intellectual impairment in childhood. However, many offenders raised in educationally and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods typically lack access to these healthcare services, and they, therefore, never undergo the mental retardation evaluation process before age eighteen. Their medical and childhood school records may be inadequate in revealing their psychological condition.

The deficiency of childhood medical proof can trigger the default position – these individuals do not meet the criteria for psychiatric retardation and may be indicated with a capital offense. In the aforementioned scenario, forensic psychologists utilize assumptions rather than reason and facts to ascertain a suspect’s mental condition (Otto et al., 2017). On the contrary, these psychologists may be ordered to give an evaluation of the psychological retardation of an individual to facilitate the sentencing process despite the lack of conclusive records on the defendant. It may also favor the defendants, as there is no prior evidence or records to show that they are violent or suffered from mental health problems. Hence based on this inconclusive information, they may end up escaping the death sentence.

Cultural prejudice against psychological assessments used in capital punishment cases continues to raise significant issues within the profession. Several tests available for assessing psychological diseases associated with aggression, adaptive behavior, and overall intelligence are based on the outcomes or scores of Caucasians, middle-class, English speaking populations born in the U.S (Otto et al., 2017). Accordingly, in the aforementioned cases, violence and mental retardation risks may be systematically under or over-diagnosed in illiterate, racial minorities, and immigrants who lack proficiency in the language – English. This represents an ethical issue since it highlights the double standards applied in referencing tests to particular ethnic groups. And it implies that it disadvantages the racial minorities while giving the whites an upper hand. On the other hand, controversy is brewed from the defendants’ side, especially those from the middle-class population, as they take advantage of these poorly based tests and use them as reference points. Hence, they are portrayed as people not prone to act violently and may receive life sentences rather than death sentences.

When sentencing a defendant, a forensic psychologist’s input is crucial in providing expert testimony or opinion when determining whether the defendant is likely to engage in future acts of hostility. These psychological tests for the likelihood of violence are based on probability rather than actuality. This is because both forensic and general psychologists can never predict the future tendency of violence. Based on this fact, jurors are more likely to arrive at a death sentence irrespective of the defendant being diagnosed with a mental disorder or even being characteristically prone to commit an act of violence in the future. This proves to be amoral since basing a verdict on probability rather than actuality might cause one to be sentenced to death irrespective of the underlying facts. It also makes jurors’ work easier since they can reach a verdict based on what they perceive as presented by the forensic practitioners. And since these psychological tests for proneness to violence are based on probability, a defendant can suppress his/her feelings to ensure that the test results are in his/her favor. Hence, this jeopardizes the decision to be arrived at by the judge or the jury.


In summary, forensic psychology has aided in the dispensing of verdicts to defendants of capital cases as well as raised concern on the ethical implications for those with mental retardations. It has also caused controversies about the human rights of the defendants. Therefore, it should be practiced and only used in fairness to aid in the fair dispensing of justice to prisoners who are being tried for capital offenses.


Perlin, M. L. (2018). Your old road is/rapidly aging: International human rights standards and their impact on forensic psychologists, the practice of forensic psychology, and the conditions of institutionalization of persons with mental disabilities. Wash. University Global Studies Law Review, 17(1), 79–111. Web.

Leong, F. T., Pickren, W. E., & Vasquez, M. J. (2017). American Psychologist, 72(8), 778–790. Web.

Hollin, C. R. (2019). Forensic (criminological) psychology. In Companion encyclopedia of psychology (pp. 1231-1253). Routledge.

Otto, R. K., Goldstein, A. M., & Heilbrun, K. (2017). Ethics in forensic psychology practice. John Wiley & Sons.

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