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Handbook of Forensic Psychiatric Practice in Capital Cases


• Explain clearly the limits of any risk assessment


• If any actuarial data is presented then emphasise that such data relates to groups and not to the defendant individually. For example, if a person is found to fall within a group who have a 40 per cent risk of committing an act of serious violence in prison then that does not equate with saying that there is a 40 per cent probability that the defendant under consideration will commit an act of serious violence


• Make clear if your risk assessment is not validated on the population or context you are considering


• Make clear the period of time over which any risk prediction applies; available data will often be gathered over a limited follow-up period


• Do not use terms like ‘high risk’ or ‘low risk’, at least without significant qualification and emphasis that risk assessment is concerned with ‘description of factors and circumstances


relevant to the individual defendant’ • Emphasise uncertainty


The worst of the worst


Tis concept is quite explicitly a legal one, in terms that capital sentencing should be reserved for those crimes considered ‘the worst of the worst’, or ‘the rarest of the rare’.


Te presence of mitigating factors, including those within the remit of the mental health expert, are highly likely to rule this out, to the extent that consideration within the test includes consideration of both the thinking and mental state of the defendant at the time he committed the offence (see above).


Even if a mental disorder defence has been unsuccessful at trial, the psychiatric data and opinion upon which the plea was based is likely to have a bearing on the sentencing. For example, if a plea of ‘diminished responsibility’ failed, not in terms of there having been no abnormality of mind but in terms of its impact having been insufficient to determine ‘substantial impairment of mental responsibility’, it might still be perceived as reducing responsibility sufficient not to apply the death penalty.


However, the ultimate question about whether an offence is sufficiently heinous to be considered ‘the worst of the worst’ should not be addressed by a mental health expert.


Beyond reformation


Only a defendant who has committed an offence which is ‘the worst of the worst’ and who is considered ‘beyond reformation’ will be properly sentenced to death. As already described above, psychiatric and psychological data and opinion can be directly applied to this test, both in regard to ‘risk assessment’ and in regard to ‘treatability’. Te former is naturally linked to the latter, but risk can be reduced by ‘external’ measures (such as mode of containment) and therefore without the prospect of successful treatment (which might reasonably imply ‘some measure of change within the defendant’ operating as a means towards risk management and reduction). (See generally Chapter 7)


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