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Assessing Mental Retardation When There's Secondary Gain

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As Kent notes, there have been a series of posts over the internet about the impending execution of Bobby Woods.  Many have claimed that Woods is mentally retarded and his execution would therefore violate Atkins v. Virginia.  But what evidence is there that Woods is mentally retarded?  As Kent notes, there are three criteria which all must be meet in order for someone to meet a clinical diagnosis of mental retardation:

  1. A full-scale IQ score of 70 of less;
  2. Significant limitations in adaptive functioning (e.g., an inability to dress oneself or use the bathroom without assistance);
  3. Age of onset before 18. 

Of course, in Atkins, the Court did not expressly claim that these clinical criteria were dispositive; rather the Court was willing to defer to the various state legislatures.  But those legislatures have largely adapted these clinical criteria with the understanding that they have been formulated by the scientific knowledge of the professional bodies which promulgated them.

Applying Atkins is difficult.  Obviously, anyone on death row has a vested interest in appearing mentally retarded.  This is known in psychology as the problem of secondary gain.  The problem is amplified in Atkins claims because the various psychological tests used to assess IQ assume that the test-taker is exerting maximum effort.  None of the tests are designed to detect whether the test-taker is intentionally trying to appear less intelligent than he or she really is.  After all, in most contexts, higher intelligence has direct benefits for the test-taker.  Not so when an Atkins claim is at issue.

To overcome this difficulty, most forensic psychologists rely on historical records to collaborate their hypothesis.  And none are more relied upon than prior IQ tests that were administered before the test-taker had a powerful incentive to appear less intelligent than they really are.  When only 1 out of 5 IQ tests indicate mild mental retardation (with the rest showing no retardation) the weight of evidence is strongly against the hypothesis of mental retardation.  The fact that the only test indicative of mental retardation was administered during pending litigation makes it highly suspect.

More curiously, though, are claims that watching short video clips is a reliable and valid method of assessing mental retardation.  It surely is not.  Psychological assessment of intelligence is a highly involved and complex affair. This is even more true in borderline cases such as this Woods case.  Woods' only score indicative of mental retardation is 68, which - if it were to be believed as accurate - would barely place him in the mildly mentally retarded range.  The idea that one could ascertain someone as mentally retarded immediately upon meeting them only holds weight if the person was profoundly retarded - which clearly Woods is not.    And it was this distinction that the common law got right before Atkins.  

1 Comment

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