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Violence Risk Assessment at Federal Capital Sentencing: Individualization, Generalization, Relevance, and Scientific Standards

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice and Behavior Volume: 29 Issue: 5 Dated: October 2002 Pages: 512-537
Mark D. Cunningham; Thomas J. Reidy
Kirk Heilbrun
Date Published
October 2002
26 pages
This article discusses the issue of relevancy and reliability surrounding violence risk assessment testimony in Federal capital sentencing through the application of group statistical methodology and data.
Group statistical methodology and data have been identified as fundamental to reliable violence risk assessments and has dominated expert testimony regarding future dangerousness at Federal capital sentencing trials for the past 5 years. The data in these assessments are typically described in terms of the base rate, or frequency of violence, in a given sample or population under specified circumstances over a given period of time. Even though standards for admissibility of violence risk assessment are being considered in Federal capital sentencing, they remain ambiguous. The issues challenging the violence risk assessment testimony are centered on relevancy and reliability. The article reviews the recent history of violence risk assessment testimony at Federal capital sentencing, the standards of violence risk assessment testimony by mental health experts, and the admissibility of violence risk assessment testimony. Despite the inroads that scientifically reliable violence risk assessment methodology and data are making in Federal death penalty sentencing, unreliable methods are still being utilized by mental health experts in the area of literal life and death. Assertions of high violence probability based on methods without adequate empirical support raise serious ethical concerns. Regarding Federal capital cases, when a jury hears no mental health expert testimony addressing the likelihood of a defendant committing acts of serious violence in prison, multiple factors suggest the potential for fundamental error in the jury’s violence risk determination in the absence of sound violence risk assessment methodology and data. References