Sharon Brown

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




The determination of a death-row inmate's competency to be executed is a compelling ethical issue for mental health professionals. It has been suggested that forensic psychologists who offer such services to the courts may tend to approach the problem of determining competency by diverse and unstandardized methods (Grisson, 1986). Heilbrun (1986) has questioned the effect of the psychologist's potential death penalty bias on the outcome of the evaluation process.

Death penalty attitudes have a demonstrated effect on the decision-making processes of capital jurors who are death-qualified, (willing to impose the death penalty under some circumstances) or excludable (unwilling to consider the death penalty under any circumstances) (Fitzgerald & Ellsworth, 1984).

The present study surveyed Ph.D. clinical psychologists specializing in forensic services to the courts to determine which characteristics associated with the inmate (mitigating factors and behavior on death-row) ; the capital crime- aggravating factors); or the evaluating psychologist (death-qualified or excludable) might be related to the final decision of the inmate's competency to be executed.

Results indicated that death-qualified but not excludable psychologists were significantly more likely to assess an inmate as competent for execution when the inmate had committed a premeditated or a heinous crime or when the inmate had been diagnosed as a sociopath. The competency decisions of the death-qualified psychologists were not affected by the presence of any mitigating factors, whereas the excludable psychologists appeared more likely than the death-qualified to consider mitigating circumstances, although the relationship did not achieve statistical significance.

The results were interpreted within Wrightsman's (1991) assertion that the "first dilemma" between law and psychology is belief in the protection of the rights of the accused versus protection of society at large. The sensitivity of death-qualified psychologists to aggravating factors may tend to indicate that they might align themselves on the side of protecting society at large while the excludable psychologists who are so strongly opposed to the death penalty that they would refuse to consider imposing it even under extraordinary circumstances of crime might tend to align themselves with protection of the rights of the accused.