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Dr. James Grigson: The Man Called “Doctor Death”

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Dr. James Grigson was sometimes referred to as "the hanging shrink."

Dr. James Grigson was sometimes referred to as "the hanging shrink."

Tainted Testimony

Practicing as a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson was called upon to evaluate people charged with capital murder crimes. Rarely did any of the 167 inmates he testified against escape the death penalty. Then, he was unmasked as a quack.

The average condemned person spends six-and-a-half years on Death Row as their case goes through the appeal process.

The average condemned person spends six-and-a-half years on Death Row as their case goes through the appeal process.

What Is Forensic Psychiatry?

Forensic psychiatrists work with the justice system and are called in to establish the mental condition of people charged with crimes. Better tells us that forensic psychiatry is a “medical science that spans the fields of law, criminal justice, and psychiatry. It's the use of psychiatric evaluations, consultations, and testimony to aid in the resolution of court cases and other legal matters.”

Forensic psychiatrists are asked to determine whether those charged with a serious crime are mentally competent to stand trial; does the prisoner understand the charges against them and is she or he able to assist their legal counsel?

Another function of the profession is to appear for the defence or prosecution as an expert witness. Having examined the accused, the forensic psychiatrist is asked to offer an opinion about their mental health. They are also asked to give courts opinions on whether or not a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is valid.

Becoming a forensic psychiatrist requires a huge amount of schooling. First comes a bachelor's degree; then there is four years of medical school followed by four years of psychiatric residency. Finally, there is another year of training in forensic psychiatry.

James Grigson followed this long path to getting his designation as a forensic psychiatrist from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas.

Dr. Grigson's Testimony

Known to some defense attorneys as “the hanging shrink,” Grigson was a formidable presence in Texas courtrooms where life-or-death decisions were made over the fate of murderers.

Usually appearing during the penalty phase of a trial, Grigson's specialty was “future dangerousness.” Texas juries must decide whether or not a convicted murderer presents a real and ongoing likelihood of re-offending.

It was Dr. Grigson's expertise in guiding juries through that decision-making process that made him the go-to guy among prosecutors. He had a folksy manner and an easygoing Texas drawl that put jurors at ease over the awesomeness of the decision about taking another human's life.

Writing for Vanity Fair, Ron Rosenbaum described how Grigson would “take the stand, listen to a recitation of facts about the killing and the killer, and then—usually without examining the defendant, without ever setting eyes on him until the day of the trial—tell the jury that, as a matter of medical science, he can assure them the defendant will pose a continuing danger to society . . .”

Grigson was absolutely certain in his ability to predict future dangerousness. And, he interviewed thousands of violent criminals during his career so he certainly knew a lot about how their minds worked.

But here's the rub: the psychiatric profession is at odds over its ability to predict future behaviour. More on that later, for now let's take a detour to look at the case of Randall Dale Adams.

Huntsville "Walls" Unit where all Texas executions are carried out.

Huntsville "Walls" Unit where all Texas executions are carried out.

Innocent on Death Row

Shortly after midnight on November 28, 1976, Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood pulled over a car with no lights on. Gunfire came from the car, Wood died, and the car sped off.

The fugitive car had been stolen by a juvenile, David Ray Harris. Earlier in the evening, Harris had been in the company of 27-year-old Randall Dale Adams. At trial, 16-year-old Harris testified that Adams was the driver and the gunman. The prosecution used tainted witness evidence and suppressed information that pointed to Harris being the guilty party.

Adams strongly denied having anything to do with the killing of Officer Wood, saying that at the time of the crime he was in a motel room watching TV with his brother. No matter, the jury passed a verdict of guilty.

At the penalty phase of the trial, the prosecution put Dr. Grigson in the witness box. The psychiatrist assured the jury that Adams had a “sociopathic personality disorder” and was “at the very extreme, worse or severe end of the scale (”

He added that, if freed, Adams would probably kill again and nothing known to medical science could treat his disorder. The jury decided that execution was the therapy needed to protect society from this dangerous offender.

Three days before Adams's execution a stay was issued. Further investigations pointed to his innocence, bolstered by the confession to the killing of Officer Wood by David Harris who was on Death Row for another crime.

In 1989, Adams was released from prison having spent twelve-and-a-half years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. He became an anti-death penalty activist and led a crime-free life until his death in October 2010. He received no compensation for his wrongful conviction.

In June 2004, David Ray Harris was executed by lethal injection; his final words were “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. I’m done, warden.”

Trailer of a Documentary About the Randall Adams Case

The Future Dangerousness Controversy

Until his death in 2004, James Grigson maintained he was right in his assessment of the likelihood that Randall Adams was a murderer who would kill again. It was his adamant refusal to acknowledge that he might be fallible that led to Grigson's undoing.

In 1983, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) presented a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a case in which Dr. Grigson “expressed extreme certainty” that a convicted murderer would kill again if not put to death.

Here's an excerpt from the hearing's transcript:

“The American Psychiatric Association (APA), participating in this case as amicus curiae, (an impartial advisor) informs us that '[t]he unreliability of psychiatric predictions of long-term future dangerousness is by now an established fact within the profession.' . . . The APA's best estimate is that two out of three (the court's italics) predictions of long-term future violence made by psychiatrists are wrong.”

Grigson refused to acknowledge the possibility that his judgment on future dangerousness might be suspect. In trial after trial he gave juries his unshakable testimony that murderers would kill again. Juries listened attentively and sent most convicts to Death Row. Also listening was the APA and it didn't like what it was hearing.

Twice the American Psychiatric Association reprimanded Grigson, but this had no effect on him. So, in 1995, the APA expelled Grigson for violating the group's code of practice. The Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians kicked him out shortly thereafter.

Grigson never wavered from his belief that his predictive powers were 100 percent accurate.

Some people suggest life imprisonment without possibility of parole is a harsher punishment than execution.

Some people suggest life imprisonment without possibility of parole is a harsher punishment than execution.

Bonus Factoids

  • Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas had executed 574 people at the time of this writing. At least 100 of those people were put to death based largely on James Grigson's testimony.
  • Dr. Charles Smith was a prominent pediatric forensic pathologist in Toronto. When he testified that a child's death was caused by violence, juries believed him and people went to prison. But suspicions about Smith's competence led to a coroner's inquiry and this triggered a government probe into his actions. The inquiry concluded in October 2008 “that Smith 'actively misled' his superiors, 'made false and misleading statements' in court and exaggerated his expertise in trials” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Justice Stephen Goudge, who presided over the inquiry, said “Smith lacked basic knowledge about forensic pathology.” Dozens of people were jailed because Smith's courtroom testimony was based on sloppy work. Families whose lives were shattered because of Smith's inept testimony were offered compensation.


© 2022 Rupert Taylor