From Trauma to Death Row: the all too common story

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 25% of people on death row in the United States have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. This is a shocking statistic, particularly given that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” which has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include the execution of people with intellectual disabilities or severe mental illness. In 1986, the court ruled that the execution of people with mental illness was not unconstitutional per se. 

Research has consistently shown that a large percentage of individuals with serious mental illness have experienced trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or violence. For example, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 70% of adults in psychiatric hospitals had experienced some form of trauma in their lifetime. In addition, a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that 60% of people with severe mental illness had experienced abuse or trauma as children. These findings highlight the complex and interconnected nature of mental illness and trauma

Sadly, on May 9, 2023, the Governor of Florida signed the fourth death warrant of the year, ordering the execution of Duane Owen, a mentally ill and sexual abuse survivor. Owen’s case is a tragic example of the injustices inherent in the death penalty system, particularly when it comes to people with serious mental illness. Despite mounting evidence that executing individuals with mental illness is both unconstitutional and unjust, many states continue to pursue the death penalty at an alarming rate, perpetuating a system that is deeply flawed and often cruel.

Duane Owen’s life has been marked by tragedy and trauma from an early age. He was born into a family plagued by alcoholism, and his mother’s untimely death from cancer left him without a parental figure at a young age. This was only the beginning of his hardships. After his father committed suicide, Duane was placed in an orphanage where he suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to care for him. At just nine years old, Duane was forced to have sex with a 35-year-old childcare director, leaving him scarred both physically and emotionally. To make matters worse, Duane was drinking alcohol as young as 9 years old and suffers from severe mental illness and brain damage, which causes him to experience delusions and act compulsively. Despite overwhelming evidence of his mental illness, Duane’s plea for clemency has been ignored, and he now faces the same fate as many before him: a cruel and inhumane death at the hands of the state. It is a tragic reminder of the failures of our justice system to protect the most vulnerable among us.

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The ultimate hypocrisy of the death penalty is that it claims to provide justice for victims and their families, but it ignores the fact that many on death row are themselves victims of abuse and trauma. Duane Owen’s story is a tragic example of this. Who has brought him justice for the abuse he suffered as a vulnerable orphan? Who has held accountable those who were supposed to protect him but instead inflicted unspeakable harm? Our society has failed Duane and others like him, and yet we continue to uphold a system that perpetuates the cycle of violence and trauma. The death penalty is not justice, it is a symptom of a broken system

It is particularly ironic that the Governor of Florida recently signed a law allowing for the death penalty for those who commit severe sexual offenses against children. And yet, he is now complicit in the state-sanctioned killing of a man who was himself a victim of such abuse. How can we claim to protect children from sexual predators by using the same system to execute those who have suffered such trauma and abuse? It is a cruel and senseless cycle, and one that must be recognized and addressed if we are to truly seek justice and healing for all.

Studies have consistently shown a disturbing correlation between childhood sexual abuse and an increased risk of committing violent crimes later in life. According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), individuals who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood are more likely to engage in violent behaviors as adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study revealed that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at a significantly higher risk of becoming perpetrators of violence themselves.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the death penalty is its impact on children and the message it sends to them. Our children hear about these executions in the newspapers, see information on television, and internalize the example being set before them. What kind of society are we creating when we punish violence with violence and respond to suffering with murder? How can our children feel safe and protected when they witness the cold and calculated elimination of an orphan, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, who received no support from our society? The cycle of trauma that led to the crimes committed by individuals like Duane Owen goes unaddressed, and instead, we perpetuate a cycle of violence and revenge. This is not the lesson we should be teaching our children. We must strive for a system that prioritizes healing, compassion, and rehabilitation rather than perpetuating a cycle of pain and death.

Ultimately, Duane Owen’s story highlights the flaws in the criminal justice system and the cruelty of the death penalty. We must strive for better. We must be more humane, more just, and more compassionate towards those suffering from mental illness and trauma. We must show our children that we can address societal issues without resorting to violence. As Albert Einstein once said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” The death penalty will not bring victims back to life, nor will it heal the wounds caused by sexual abuse and trauma. We must seek more humane and effective solutions to prevent crimes. It is a societal issue that concerns us all. 

By rallying against Duane Owen’s execution, we are rallying for every victim of abuse, every survivor of trauma, and every person who has ever been failed by our justice system. It is a call to action for all of us to stand up and say that we will not accept the cycle of abuse and trauma that so often leads to the death penalty. We will not sit idly by as our society fails to provide the support and resources necessary to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the first place. Let us come together and fight for a justice system that truly prioritizes healing, rehabilitation, and prevention over vengeance and retribution.

About the Author
Claudine Clark is president/founder of the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty. An abolitionist, paralegal and human rights consultant, her passion stems from her origins as the granddaughter of Warsaw ghetto survivors. She defends human values of forgiveness and tolerance through numerous actions.
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