Abused In Childhood Then Sentenced To Die: 5 Stories


Late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun regretted the Court's 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia decision allowing executions to resume, saying in his dissent: "The path the Court has chosen lessens us all."

Daniel Cook, abused since infancy and now facing execution on August 8 in Arizona, is just the most current example of someone who endured severe childhood abuse only to later face execution. (Cook has a clemency hearing on Aug. 3; the prosecutor opposes his execution and it can still be stopped.)

There have been plenty of others.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the US Supreme Court allowed executions to resume but required that juries be guided to restrict death sentences to the worst crimes committed by the worst offenders (aka “the worst of the worst”). The Court also endorsed laws “permitting the jury to dispense mercy on the basis of factors too intangible to write into a statute.” Defendants with mitigating circumstances (like youth, diminished mental capacity, or a history of childhood abuse) were supposed to receive lesser sentences.

So why do people with severe child abuse in their backgrounds keep ending up on death row?  Are they really among the worst?

Here are five recent examples that Amnesty International has documented, in sometimes disturbing detail:

  • Samuel Lopez was executed just last month, also in Arizona. According to one doctor, he “lived much of his life as a feral child.” He grew up in an environment of extreme poverty and violence where he was isolated, neglected and beaten, and witnessed his mother being repeatedly beaten as well.
  • When Michael Brawner eight he witnessed the rape of his seven-year-old sister by his father, something that went on for the next five years.  To keep him quiet, his father beat him so consistently and severely that he regularly missed school to recover from the beatings. By age 14 he was diagnosed with polysubstance dependency and PTSD, and he was later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Mississippi executed him last month.
  • Richard Smith was physically abused by his father, and his stepfather.  The abuse led to him run away from home at the age of 11 or 12. At a juvenile facility where he was sent, he tried to kill himself to avoid being returned home.  When he was returned he was beaten severely, handcuffed, and locked in a cupboard every night for two weeks.  Thankfully, his sentence was commuted to life without parole by the Governor of Oklahoma in May 2010.
  • As a small child, Steven Woods was sexually abused by his father and hospitalized for self-mutilation and suicidal behavior. He was later physically and emotionally abused by his stepfather, and he was using drugs, including LSD, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, codeine and marijuana, by the age of 13. By age 17 he was homeless and working as a prostitute to obtain money for drugs. The state of Texas put him to death in September 2011.
  • Stephen West was born in a mental institution. From the time he was born until he left for the army, he was severely physically abused by both his parents. He was beaten, punched, thrown into walls, and subject to other forms of cruelty including public humiliation, degradation, captivity, and isolation.  He continues to face possible execution in Tennessee.

All these men committed serious crimes.  But, as boys, they also suffered horrific childhood abuse, and their death sentences (and in some cases executions) make a mockery of the notion that we “dispense mercy”, or that we are limiting capital punishment to the worst possible offenders.  We are not.  (In fact, we can’t even keep innocent people off of death row.)

More often, those who end up on death row are not the worst offenders, but those who experienced the worst childhoods, or had the worst (or non-existent) mental health care, or were saddled with the worst lawyers (see, for example, all five cases listed above).

Recognizing this, three of the Supreme Court Justices who voted for Gregg have since expressed profound regret for that decision.

One of them, Justice Harry Blackmun, announced his regret 18 years ago in a powerful dissent, writing: “The basic question–does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants ‘deserve’ to die?–cannot be answered in the affirmative … The path the Court has chosen lessens us all.”

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9 thoughts on “Abused In Childhood Then Sentenced To Die: 5 Stories

  1. Not all abused children grow into a life leading to a death-row sentence…or even a jail sentence for that matter. I didn't. According to some it's not a question of if but when as there's still the unfinished factor of time. Why is this,
    because we exist among you, the duality of the abused and non-abused alike? More accurately, we choose to exist, as we choose not to commit atrocities against a member of our relative human race. The atrocities to these men as children, to many of us that walk this life with you, were shown no mercy, no grace, no love in those terror inflicted and distinguishing moments cultivated by an unquenchable exposure to a deplorable madness is a paradox that offers to us the unique understanding and exercising of grace, of mercy and of love which you speak, which we speak, which we live, to which we choose. What has happened to the child we were cannot be undone nor remedied. Killing the one that chooses to re-exorcise the madness upon another life does not undo what has been done either. Time will not afford a correct answer nor resolution and that is the paradox we live. Sometimes, both good and bad people can simultaneously suck at making the correct choice. `AdQk

  2. I was surprised to see only one posted comment after this article. When it comes to diminished capacity, low IQ or even mental deficiency they are numerous. When using child abuse as a defense aren't we circling back to same thing? They weren't shown right from wrong so may not understand the difference? I think a lot of people fail to take into consideration that most of these defense attempts are in order to circumvent death. Once convicted of a crime that merits (by law) the death sentence they are the only recourse they have.

  3. If you were abused your whole life you might have a different view towards abusing and killing people too. I dont think anyone is trying to make excuses for these people or their actions but for just a minute walk a mile in their shoes. Maybe we are just saying in the end that they are just damaged goods and we are putting them down like a sick animal?

  4. Is there a cause/effect relationship between child abuse and becoming a murderer? I know that even the most fanatical death penalty opponents cannot make this argument in a credible way whatsoever. There are so many other extraneous variables to consider that only can make this reasoning correlative. Why do some murder and others, with similar abuse in their backgrounds, floursih to become fairly well adjusted citizens?

    Murder is a choice!!! We are not guided by some behavioral prinicples that would reduce us to reactionary animals. We possess an frontal lobe and are capable to recover. At some point in our post-abuse lives, we are presented with individuals and environments that can mediate all this pain and channel it positively. How many here have read the CHild Called IT series by David Peltzer?

    My heart goes out to al abused children, however I also know that ABUSE DOES NOT EQUAL BECOMING AMURDERER. Those who chose to murder cannot use that as an excuse…

  5. Obviously an abusive, violent background doesn't mandate that someone will behave similarly later in life, but I think most will agree that it makes it more likely. I read DAvid Peltzer's story and what makes it so incredible is that it is a very unusual story in that he was able to rise above it. It is an extremely RARE individual who can experience the type of horrors he did, and go on to make positive choices in life. Our prisons are overflowing with inmates who never had a father figure, or were abused as children.
    I find much to agree with in the saying, "There but for the grace of God, go I." THere is a strong correlation between abuse and neglect as a child and a higher incarceration rate in adulthood, and sadly, violence often begets violence. I think some level of mercy should be extended when someone starts out life with the deck stacked against them, and demonstrates remorse and the capacity to change. To do less than that, makes us a reactionary and unmerciful society.

  6. I too think that an abusive childhood does not necessarily give rise to an abusive adult in later life. However I think that there is compelling evidence to suggest such a link in many cases. These young people are without support networks that many of us take for granted and are often not taught the difference between right and wrong. They are most definitely failed by the system however aside from showing leniency or meting out punishment in later life, intervention has to be undertaken more ferociously by the state when these people are young, not only for their own wellbeing but it could also help minimise the likelihood of turning some of our youth into tomorrow's killers. While it is incredibly sad at what these lives have essentially become, we mustn't forget their victims and accept that they are still culpable and deserving of punishment. I am not a supporter of CP due to wrongful convictions and disproportionate applications but I do believe that better education, equality and more accountability by authorities for such young people would be a better deterrent to a life of crime than the DP. And only when we as a society can conclude that we have not failed them in any way, can we throw away the key.

  7. Just another example that supports the case against the capital punishment. These sentences are always arbitrary. In this case, how can we judge someone who has been though such traumatic experiences?

  8. There are things that scar us for life and no one can judge something like this. You can never decide to end someone to death…especially when there are things about that person that you could never understand.

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