Saturday, December 20, 2003

DALLAS — Dr. James Grigson, whose testimony spelled death for scores of Texas criminals over the past 40 years, has retired.

A noted forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Grigson, 71, has been known throughout the jurisprudence system as “Dr. Death” because of his tenacious and authoritative belief that seldom can murderers be rehabilitated.

In more than 100 of the 167 capital cases in which he was involved, he testified strongly that a defendant would kill again if given the opportunity — a continuing threat to society, in other words.

Jurors routinely admitted his testimony was the motivating factor for them to assess death instead of a lesser term.

Defense lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates have been strongly critical of him.

“He is going to have a legacy that will last a long time,” said lawyer Jim Hartnett Jr., who often hired Dr. Grigson to evaluate the mental capacity of those involved in probate cases. “The people remember the death penalty cases, but most of his work was from judges, to have him evaluate competency.”

Mr. Hartnett and defense lawyer Doug Mulder threw a lavish party for Dr. Grigson last week at a local country club.

Mr. Mulder, for many years a leading prosecutor who relied heavily on Dr. Grigson in capital cases, called him “a fantastic communicator. He is very logical and reasonable and he talks so that jurors can understand completely what his opinion is.”

Rick Halperin, president of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, isn’t one of Dr. Grigson’s admirers.

“Just take the case of Randall Dales Adams, innocent and free today and getting on with his life,” Mr. Halperin said.

Mr. Adams was convicted of murder and sent to death row in 1977, but was released in 1989 when new evidence exonerated him. He later was portrayed in a movie, “The Thin Blue Line.”

“He wasn’t guilty then and hasn’t been in trouble since,” said Mr. Halperin, “and yet 12 people took the word of Dr. Grigson, who said he was psychopathic and a degenerate.”

Andrea Keilen, an attorney with the Texas Defenders Service, said she knew of dozens of former death row inmates whose sentences were reduced for various reasons and who have never been involved in any difficulties though Dr. Grigson testified they should be executed because they would likely commit murder again.

In 1988, a report compiled by an assistant district attorney in Dallas concluded that after the study of 11 specific death penalty verdicts — where the defendants’ terms had been reduced — not a single one had been other than a model prisoner.

Mr. Halperin, in a brief for other prisoners, concluded that “despite his [Dr. Grigsons] near-identical predictions that each inmate would ‘beyond any doubt,’ ‘absolutely’ and ‘without any question’ commit acts of dangerousness in the future, that prosecution-prepared report proved the psychiatrist was seldom accurate.”

That practice of diagnosing future dangerousness — sometimes without interviewing the subject — got Dr. Grigson expelled from the American Psychiatric Association in 1995. He then eased out of testifying in capital cases and worked in the areas of mental competency and civil law work.

A few months ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

More than 150 turned out to honor the controversial psychiatrist last week, including scores of leading lawyers and judges.

He said chemotherapy has been somewhat successful, adding, “I’ve got good doctors. I’m doing good.”

As for his career, he makes no apologies.

“I’ve made mistakes and I’ve admitted them,” he said. “But there is no doubt in my mind that I am 100 percent sure of what my opinion was. I had a lot of experience and a lot of evidence. Otherwise, I sure wouldn’t have done it.”

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