Future Danger

November 5, 2008

In the Philip K. Dick short story (and Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise film) The Minority Report, a special agency known as Precrime relies on psychic “precogs” to anticipate and thus prevent murders before they happen.   

It is an interesting and thought provoking scifi premise, but, disturbingly, we’re actually sort of really using it to decide who should be executed … In the all too real non-scifi world of Texas Capital Punishment, prosecutors hire psychi(atri)c experts to enlighten juries about convicted murderers’ “future dangerousness”.  In Texas, “future dangerousness” is an aggravating factor that juries must consider in deciding whether or not to pass a sentence of death. 

In a dissent Wednesday in the case of Noah Espada, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Paul Womack, joined by Judge Cheryl Johnson, states bluntly that there is “no evidence at all, anywhere, of the reliability of these predictions of future dangerousness.”  Justice Womack challenged the scientific validity of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ future danger prognostications, and concluded that: “Before we accept an opinion that a capital murderer will be dangerous even in prison, there should be some research to show that this behavior can be predicted.”

This casts the whole notion of “future dangerousness” onto thin ice, where it belongs.  Unfortunately, this was only a dissent (or, a “minority report”), so for now Texas jurors will still be required to function like the science-fictional “precogs” – Wikipedia portrays “precogs” as being “kept in rigid position by metal bands, clamps and wiring, which keep them attached to special high-backed chairs”, a not wholly inaccurate description of jury duty – and they will still be asked to gaze into the mists of future time to decide whether someone lives or dies.