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A Psychologists’ Involvement in Death Penalty Cases

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A Psychologists’ Involvement in Death Penalty Cases

Kasia E Pollock

Grand Canyon University: PSY-510


The need for psychologists in death penalty cases:

        There is an ongoing debate about the involvement of psychologists in the process of the death penalty. The debate has been brought on recently with the disclosure of the methods used with military interrogations. The American Psychological Association(APA) had to revise the Ethics Code 1.02 to not allow psychologists from engaging in activities that would “just or defend violating human rights.”  (American Psychological Association Ethics Committee, 2010) Moral questions about forensic psychologists’ participation in capital punishment cases bears striking similarity to issues that drove the heated controversy over psychologists’ participation in harsh military interrogations. (Fisher, 2014) This standard does not allow for psychologists to get involved in activities that with violate human rights. (American Psychological Association Ethics Committee, 2010) Because of these problems with the military the involvement of psychologist in human right death penalty cases has been brought to the forefront even if the problem is a legal issue. Psychologists have an important role in understanding people who are up for the death penalty but to what extent their involvement should be used to determine a legal sentence is debatable.

One of the first things to look is whether capital punishment violates human rights. The spirit of human rights has been transmitted consciously and unconsciously from one generation to another, carrying the scars of its tumultuous past.  (What are human rights? Six historical controversies., 2004) The argument is whether the act of putting someone to death violates human rights which we as psychologist are bound to defend or whether taking a person who is detrimental to society is more humane for the general public. Based on what the United States Supreme Court decision in Gregg versus the state of Georgia in 1978 the death penalty itself is not cruel and unusual punishment. (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976) Despite this decision there is no consensus in the United States as to whether or not the death penalty is violating human rights. The inherent fallibility of psychological tests may also contribute to arbitrariness and inequities in death penalty proceedings.  (Fisher, 2014)

         One of the hardest parts about the death penalty and its relationship to human rights is that the idea of “human rights” is an organic concept. The legal system is always changing and has its own safeguards but a psychologist point of view may be very different than what a certain states legal rights are or even just the government in general. Both the ideas of human rights and legal rights changes over time with changes is culture and public opinion. The discrepancies of the human rights issue as it pertains to the death penalty is easier to debate from a legal standpoint than from a psychological one because the practice of psychology holds truer because it pertains to human emotions and health. The safeguards in place for the death penalty protects those in the legal system more than psychologists. With this said a complete ban of the use of psychologists to determine whether someone should receive the death penalty is ill advised also because psychologist is a huge part of understanding the why while the legal system looks at the what. Psychologists are particularly needed when it comes to capital cases because of the immense pressure on accountability for all parties involved.



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