Texas capital case highlights racial bias in psychology

Texas capital case highlights racial bias in psychology

Is it fair to forecast future danger based on demographics?

Even as Troy Davis‘s execution tonight draws attention to Georgia’s death penalty, Texas remains  the undisputed execution capital of the United States. And in Texas, psychologists are integral to the process because of the prerequisite of proving future danger.

It is here that Texas psychologist Walter Quijano stepped in, testifying in more than 100 capital cases. And in case after case, called by both the prosecution and the defense, he testified that defendants on trial for their lives were especially dangerous if they happened to be African American or Latino.

Like Davis’s execution, Quijano’s racially imbued risk assessments are also in the international spotlight, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s grant of a 30-day reprieve from death for Duane E. Buck, a convicted double-murderer who had already eaten his last meal when he got the news.

To his credit, former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn agreed with defense attorneys that infusing race into criminal sentencing is unfair. When Quijano’s testimony was called to his attention some time back, he red-flagged seven cases as meriting a new sentencing hearing. (The government now argues that Buck’s case is different from the others for procedural reasons.)

The “infusion of race as a factor for the jury to weigh in making its determination” violates a defendant’s “constitutional right to be sentenced without regard to the color of his skin,” the top prosecutor stated in reference to another of the seven cases. “Discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all respects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.”

Quijano, a native of the Philippines, said in an interview with CNN correspondent Raju Chebium back in 2000 that his opinion about the dangerousness of Blacks and Latinos derives from the fact that they are overrepresented in prisons. “When you look at a problem, you have to consider all the factors that you identify and not ignore (selected ones) because of political reasons.”

But using incarceration rates as evidence for violence risk is circular logic. It conveniently ignores other factors that contribute to the vastly disproportionate incarceration of non-white men. These include racial profiling, poverty, economic discrimination, and most of all the racial bias endemic within all stages of the criminal justice system.

Quijano’s self-styled risk method is not the only instance in which psychologists use a demographic factor to elevate risk. But hopefully the Buck case will draw attention to the larger issues of fairness and social justice that the practice raises.

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