This blog is based on the Youtube clip David D. Row: Lessons from Death Row Inmates. Row, a Texas criminal defense attorney for death row inmates, explored what happens in the life of a killer years before the kill happens. His primary goal is in eliminating the need for the death sentence before murder even happens. He researched a number of death row prisoners and discovered that (not surprisingly) many of these men (he didn’t research women) share similar autobiographies from childhood to the moment of the crime.
Dow discussed one of his intriguing death row clients named Will. Will revealed several situational events in his life that seemed destined to work against him.
- he never knew his father well
- mother was a paranoid schizophrenic
- father left mother when she was pregnant with Will
- Will’s mother tried to kill him with a butcher knife when he was 5 years old
- she was placed in a psychiatric hospital and Will was raised by a sibling
- the sibling committed suicide using shotgun
- Will was passed around among family members
- by the age of 9, Will was homeless
- by the age of 11, he had been living alone for 2 years
- Will adopted himself a family – he joined a gang and committed serious crimes, mostly felonies, including murder
- Will was executed for the murder
On the last day of his life, Will and Dow had a conversation about Will’s family. Will remembered the first, most horrifying moment of his life: the day his mother tried to murder him with a knife that looked bigger than himself. This was something so terrible he remembered every detail and until he died that day, he never forgot it.
Dow stated that the most ardent death penalty supports share the same perspective as the most vociferous abolitionists. Before I continued the video, I paused it and reflected on that seemingly contradictory statement, and after literally a minute, the statement wasn’t contradictory at all: I agreed with Dow. Where you have death penalty supporters, you have people who (whether or not they are aware of this) are passionate about defending the rights of children and ensuring that a person’s journey from childhood into adulthood is as fair and as nurturing as possible. Abolitionists try to forgive the killer, as their journey to that point in their lives has been a rough one, far worse than the average person who emerges from a decent home can imagine. The thinking among both groups supports the notion that the origins of a person’s actions and mental development begin possibly when that person is still in utero, or at least infancy, when the criminal has no control whatsoever over his or her situation. I won’t argue the possibility of genetics and criminal behaviour as I have done in a previous blog or two. Ultimately, we are examining ourselves under a microscope, rather than merely the criminal, and what we often find isn’t too comforting. Niesztche has a more poetic way of putting it: battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. However if we are going to reduce recidivism and prevent crime from happening in the first place, we have no choice but to gaze into the abyss.
A Little History and One Stat
Until the 1980s criminals on trial for murder were offered only volunteer lawyers to handle their cases; they didn’t have a right to a lawyer. At that time, the death penalty in Texas began climbing towards an all-time high. In the 1990s, death penalties dropped dramatically, not due to fewer murders in the state, and certainly not due to an increase in abolitionists and a decrease in supporters. This resulted from a shift where lawyers with expertise and experience working with death row inmates became involved in their cases earlier in the appeal process. The earlier the lawyer intervenes in a case, the greater the likelihood the client’s life will be saved. Dow also discovered that his client Will was far from an exceptional case; his life reflected many other murderers on many levels. Representing the death row inmate isn’t about breaking down the story into smaller segments, surprisingly, it’s about enlarging it and examining ways to keep the inmate off the row in the first place. Even more importantly, it’s about preventing the murder of an innocent victim at all.
Genesis of a Serial Killer
The serial killer, although certainly in a class of his own, also shares similarities but different enough to make them complex to study. Serial killers have many traits in common with each other. Depending on the circumstances, one difference in Will’s murder while in a gang, is that the serial killer practices free will. It cannot be denied that there are a great deal of unconscious drives present in the actions of the serial killer. It is well known that fantasy plays a large role in the life and motivation of the serial killer. It is also widely accepted that the serial killer uses fantasy as a crutch, as a coping mechanism for day-to-day life. The serial killer, much like the chronic gambler and problem drinker, is addicted to the use of fantasy. So strong is this compulsion that the serial killer murders to preserve the addiction, in essence preserving his only remaining coping mechanism. Serial killers are viewed by many experts in both psychology and psychiatry to be the ultimate extension of violence.
The psychological classification for serial killers has been bandied about for many years, but the most appropriate is that of psychopathic sexual sadist. Anti-social personality disorder has a variety of characteristics, some of which better describe serial killers than others. The inability to love, which is often considered to be the core of ASPD is especially evident in the serial killer. The killer never develops any lasting relationships which do not have obvious cause-and-effect value, such as ‘she gives me money.’ Like young children, they must constantly be in search of new entertainment, and like the young child they show little ability to restrain the occurrence or the nature of their behavior. While the young child may pull the legs off of a grasshopper for entertainment, the serial killer enjoys doing or fantasizing about doing such things to fellow humans. The origins of such a person may or may not also move in 5 chapters of his life. Most definitely a highly dysfunctional home from which the child is not removed is also a significant factor; it was the child who was the grasshopper and his parents or guardians were busy pulling of his wings.
Modes of Intervention
- Killers seem to share 5 basic chapters in their lives leading up to the crime from childhood to the crime. Similarly, there are 5 different modes of intervention that could prevent the kill and change the path of the criminal’s life, perhaps even to the point where the felon commits no serious crime at all. Dow laid out three of these modes of intervention:
- Provide early childhood care for economically disadvantaged and troubled kids – for free
- Special schools from K – high school for children in dysfunctional homes and particularly those who have experience in the juvenile system. Even when children have become juveniles it still isn’t too late. Incredibly, there is a special school established for a juvenile system in one state. A new curriculum was invented to accommodate the arrival and exit of the troubled youth, even though it proved to be very expensive.
- Daily, aggressive intervention into abusive homes requires a place to put these abused children.
Along with the crime of murder, three crimes happen in the criminal’s life long before that horrible moment: the abusive home; the inept social response and the lack of education for juveniles. Dr. Jean Alexandre Eugène Lacassagne, a medical professor from the University of Lyon in the late 1880s, once stated “society has the criminals it deserves.” Amen.