Date of Degree

2-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Patricia Zapf

Advisor

Patricia Zapf

Committee Members

Patricia Zapf

Michele Galietta

L. Thomas Kucharski

Tess Neal

Barry Rosenfeld

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology | Criminal Law

Keywords

competency for execution, clinician bias, capital punishment

Abstract

Capital punishment has been a part of the American Justice System since colonial times. A brief historical overview reveals a general tendency towards the imposition of restrictions on who is eligible for the death penalty (DP). In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court has held that the execution of an incompetent inmate is unconstitutional, but the topic is controversial among mental health professionals. The likelihood of clinician attitudes towards the DP affecting judgments of competency for execution (CFE) is discussed in the context of existing literature. The vagueness of the current CFE standard is thought to contribute to this possibility; however, no study has tested the influence of attitudes towards capital punishment on clinical judgments of CFE. Thus, two studies were conducted in an attempt to understand this relation. Study One was a national survey of psychologists’ attitudes towards the DP. Study Two used forensic clinicians drawn from Study One’s sample to examine the relationship between attitudes and competency decisions. Participants were presented with vignettes depicting an inmate of varying degrees of psychopathology and fit with CFE criteria, and asked to provide their opinion on the inmate’s CFE status. Results indicated that psychologists hold less favorable views on capital punishment than the general population. In addition, degree of fit with CFE criteria was the strongest predictor of forensic psychologists’ CFE judgments, followed by psychopathology severity; attitude towards the DP was not a statistically significant predictor of clinician’s judgments of CFE. Strengths, weaknesses, and implications for practice are discussed.

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