February 28, 2012

Forensic psychologist blackballed over competency opinions

Imagine that every time you evaluated a criminal defendant, a partisan advocate was standing by your shoulder, ready to accuse you of bias if you thought the defendant was incompetent to stand trial. To make matters worse, imagine you were assigned those defendants most likely to be impaired, due to developmental disabilities that interfere with their ability to understand their cases or work with their attorneys.

That's the pressure being applied to Ray Hendrickson, a respected forensic psychologist in the state of Washington. Accusing him of bias, local prosecutors have succeeded in getting him barred from examining criminal defendants in one Washington county.

"We have made it very clear that we don't approve of Dr. Hendrickson,"' a representative of the Pierce County (Tacoma) prosecutor's office told the local newspaper.

Prosecutors accuse Hendrickson of endangering public safety by finding too many defendants incompetent to stand trial. Hendrickson is a lead psychologist and training director at the Center for Forensic Services at Western State Hospital, one of two state hospitals where criminal defendants undergo competency and sanity evaluations and treatment under Washington’s centralized system.

The beleaguered psychologist is one of the only in-house experts qualified to evaluate defendants who have developmental disabilities as well as mental illness. As a hospital spokesperson pointed out, such defendants often are found incompetent to stand trial because they are too impaired to understand their cases or assist their attorneys in their defense.

The hospital said it acceded to prosecutors' demands under duress, because state law entitles the prosecuting attorney to approve one of the two experts appointed to conduct a competency or sanity evaluation.

To challenge Hendrickson, prosecutors pored over felony cases in which defendants were found incompetent to stand trial. Hendrickson was involved in almost half of 30 such cases over a 3-year period, they claim. One case highlighted in the news involved a developmentally disabled man accused of stabbing his girlfriend. After being found unrestorable to competency, the man was ultimately released from the hospital.

(The local news article incorrectly states that defendants found incompetent to stand trial on violent felony charges typically have their cases dismissed. In actuality, most stand trial after undergoing competency restoration treatment; only a small percentage are found unrestorable after one year of treatment, making them eligible for civil commitment if they remain dangerous.)

Defense attorneys are livid, calling the attack on Hendrickson a naked power play intended to strip criminal defendants of their right to an impartial evaluation. This is at least the second time in recent memory that Pierce County authorities have successfully objected to a respected and skilled evaluator with whom they did not see eye to eye.

Such partisan interference will only increase the pressure faced by many evaluators in state hospital settings, where beds are increasingly scarce, to find defendants competent in order to help the criminal justice process speed things along.

Having done my forensic postdoctoral fellowship in the forensic unit at Western State Hospital in the 1990s, I find this news especially sad. Back when I was there, the unit was a top-notch training site, where evaluators were given the resources, training and support to perform neutral, high-quality forensic evaluations.

Although even back then the state evaluators had a reputation of prosecutorial bias, in reality we had the independence to let the chips fall where they may. As prosecutors were fond of eliciting from us under direct examination, we didn't have to worry about earning referrals, and we got paid the same no matter which side won or lost a case.

But if prosecutors blackball experts with whom they disagree, it will be hard for them to honestly claim that their hand-picked psychologists are truly independent.

Even more ominous is a bill being considered by the state’s legislature that would require only one expert -- approved by the state -- in competency cases. The defense could request a second expert under the proposed law, but such a request would not be automatically granted.

Such a move might seem to make fiscal sense. But, given the poor rates of agreement among competency evaluators, it may be penny-wise but pound-foolish. According to a new study out of Hawaii, for example, competency evaluators disagree in about two or three cases out of every ten. That's in part because competency is nuanced. Evaluators tend to concur in obvious cases involving florid psychosis, but may arrive at different opinions in gray cases in the middle of the competency continuum.

Since judges tend to rubber-stamp experts' opinions, having only one evaluator will substantially increase rates of error. Some cases will be unnecessarily delayed while defendants undergo needless (and costly) treatment; at the other end of the spectrum, some defendants will  be unfairly convicted, undergoing trials without understanding the proceedings or being able to assist their attorneys.

Winnowing the process down to one potentially idiosyncratic opinion, or forcing out well qualified evaluators based upon their rates of incompetency findings, will make the process more unreliable and, in the end, hinder justice.

Related blog post:

Hat tip: Ken Pope


Shana Rowan said...

This is so disheartening to read, but sadly, I am not surprised in the least. I keep thinking of how convenient it is that this decision has been made, as just a few days ago a registered sex offender was accused of running a woman down with his truck and trying to abduct her, in Tacoma, WA.

How the general public cannot see how much the state benefits from winning their cases and sentencing people to jail is beyond me. Pretty soon we will be putting people in cages again simply for being mentally ill. Ugh.

Odysseus7 said...

This report from the Forensic Panel, (Michael Welner, M.D.) evaluation of Brian David Mitchell contains this summary statement...

"The above report was peer-reviewed to ensure maximum diligence, objectivity in analysis, and adherence to standards of the field of psychiatry, forensic psychiatry and forensic psychology, psychiatric diagnosis, criminal competency assessment, sex offender assessment, cultural context, and forensic assessment."

I don't know about when you were working there but they didn't have this type of open peer review during the relevant time frame of the sorry episode highlighted by this event.