Last September, a psychiatrist named Edward Gripon traveled to Texas’ death row to meet a man he helped put there. He had testified at the 2006 trial of Ramiro Gonzales, who was facing a death sentence for kidnapping, raping and killing Bridget Townsend when they both were 18 years old.
“This is a man who has demonstrated a tendency to want to control, to manipulate, and to take advantage of certain other individuals,” Gripon told the jury at the time, predicting that Gonzales would pose a risk of harming more people.
Now, Gripon sat before a man in his late 30s who seemed remorseful and introspective — and realized his prediction had turned out wrong. “Psychopaths will tell you it’s someone else’s fault,” Gripon told The Marshall Project. “Ramiro doesn’t try to lie his way out … If this man’s sentence was changed to life without parole, I don’t think he’d be a problem.”
Gripon’s turnaround is at the center of legal efforts to stop Gonzales’s execution, which is scheduled for Wednesday. But it also throws into question something much larger: the legal foundation of Texas’ death penalty system, which is unique in relying on predictions of defendants’ future behavior.
In other states, judges assess risk with algorithms, deciding who to keep in jail before trial or what sentences to hand down. Some police try to guess where crimes will happen next. But only Texas requires that jurors in death penalty cases try to predict the future by deciding “whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.”
Texas lawmakers invented this requirement in 1973, after the U.S. Supreme Court forced states to rewrite their death penalty laws. For decades, prosecutors enlisted expert witnesses whose testimonies proved a critical ingredient in Texas’ rise as the epicenter of capital punishment. By far, the most famous was psychiatrist James Grigson of Dallas, who earned the nicknames “Dr. Death” and “the hanging shrink” as he claimed “100% and absolute” certainty that defendants would kill again. By 1978, according to a Texas Monthly profile, he’d testified against more than a quarter of the people on the state’s death row, and in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court said Grigson could testify against people without even meeting them.
Grigson made at least one high-profile mistake when he described Randall Dale Adams — who was on trial for killing a Dallas police officer in 1976 — as an “extreme psychopath” who would kill again. While on death row, Adams was visited by the director Errol Morris, who was making a documentary about “Dr. Death.” Morris abandoned that idea and instead made “The Thin Blue Line,” which laid out evidence that Adams was entirely innocent in the officer’s death. Adams was freed, and soon after, the American Psychiatric Association expelled Grigson following complaints that he was misusing science. Grigson died in 2004.
In time, using such experts slowly fell out of favor. In 2003, Virginia psychologist Thomas Ryan renounced his earlier use of a psychopathy assessment to predict violence. Scholars argued that experts weren’t better than anyone else at predicting the future, and the question itself invited racist stereotypes into the courtroom. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Black man, Duane Buck, after a psychologist improperly told the jury that his race statistically increased his likelihood of future violence.
Scholars have also argued the Texas law’s emphasis that someone is a “continuing threat to society” is misleading, because now the alternative to a death sentence is life in prison without parole. And violence on death row is rare: According to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obtained by The Marshall Project, the roughly 200 men on the state’s death row were responsible for fewer than 10 assaults per year, on average, from 2016 to 2020.
Experts for the prosecution have pointed out that because death row conditions are so restrictive — more than 22 hours a day alone in a cell — it’s impossible to know what these prisoners would have done in a recreation yard or food hall. In 2007, Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a last-minute reprieve to stop the execution of Kenneth Foster, sending him off death row. Last year, Foster was accused of killing his cellmate. He has not yet faced trial.
Gripon began his career treating patients for all manner of mental health issues 50 years ago, and soon after began evaluating people facing trial. He estimates he testified in roughly 25 death penalty cases. He says he began questioning capital punishment more broadly — and testifying more for the defense — at the same time he realized, roughly 15 years ago, that he didn’t have more insight into future dangerousness “than anyone with similar intelligence and the same facts.”
Before that, though, he worked with prosecutors in Medina County, Texas, and spent three hours with Gonzales, deciding he had traits of “antisocial personality disorder,” which is marked by knowing one’s conduct is wrong but not caring or wanting to change it.
In a recent interview from death row, Gonzales told The Marshall Project that he had a troubled life well before the acts of violence that landed him there. Born in a small town in South Texas, he was abandoned by his mother, sexually abused as a young boy and didn’t meet his father until they wound up in the county jail together.
But his behavior didn’t spin out of control, he said, until his aunt — the beloved mother figure in his life — was killed by a drunk driver.
Guess one would have to chalk that one up to its all about the database or who’s psychic when evaluating another. While the death penalty is the cruelest of punishments who can control hormones or the syndrome of the carnal behavior of another. Its all about carnal behavior in this kidnap, rape, murder ordeal. Sure even those professors of psychology or human behavior can be wrong who can actually predict another human. Like I said before who know’s the thoughts and intent of another.
Just hope the Texas prison system take note of issues like this. Even this registry is a bit uncanny in many baffling ways. Their is always hope for even the pere\son that thinks what could be worse. Getting in an auto accident and losing one of arms or legs, Even war is hell … Now prison systems..
What a Folsom prison blue day.
Although this article is about the death penalty, it seems to me that there is an important lesson to be learned about people on the registry and whether they pose a current danger. The quick answer is NO. Most people on the registry do not pose a current danger and therefore there is no reason to require them to register. The challenge is to get others to listen to this message.
Janice I have to appaude you on that. Even bring this article to the attention of many is inspirational if viewed in a positive way. Yes this is a lesson in learning. While this article is directed in a consicious type viewpoint, we all make mistakes. And yes their’s a Reason for all season. I am just glad that the psychiatrist stood up to correct his “error of judgment”. Sure this risk assesment is like the assesments of some of these comments on here. To put it in simple terms no one likes to be wrong. They would rather cover their actions than to bit the bullet to be injust in themselves.
While this registry issues and even this article points to a reverse type of conscious ethics by said psychiatrist the issue still remains. If one would like to label many of these internet ordeals or encounters it would have to be a “Lustful motivational inducement” by said authorities in many of these raging registry issues across the nation. Look at it this way who is doing the evil and who is doing the motivating in many ways by these issues.
We even see somewhat motivation with comments like Tim n WI saying its all about the database or Will Allen’s rant about this and that or some terrorists encounter and many other rants. Even many of these comments seem to compound the issue and upset others in many ways. Its like everyone wants to solve their own dilemma. Sure one can talk about motivational inducement or behavior inducement or even inspirational inducement or even intentional inducement but all in all its the method of the inducement that has to be addressed. Such as intentional inducement or FTR as Will Allen has mentioned in many comments.
On a good note this article has a lot to say if one comprehends it right, Sure the kidnapping, rape, murder was bad enough but their is always something good that comes out of bad. Yes authorities that induce many of these registry ordeals via the internet are condemning themselves in many ways. See governments have always wanted to be a bit hypocritical about their vain follies. Much of this registry is vain follies or who can judge another by some ill gotten type of manipulation. Where is value or are authorities just as much guilty in much of this vain way. Take a look at abortions today and I’m sure you get the picture. I’m just glad psychiatrist stood up to help this person.