Less than two weeks after executing Kenneth Fults, Georgia is getting ready to lethally inject its fifth death row inmate this year.
Daniel Anthony Lucas is scheduled to die Wednesday night for the fatal shootings of two children. He doesn’t dispute that he committed the crime. But his story demonstrates how early childhood trauma plays out on death rows across the country today. A substantial number of executions involve people who grew up around substance abuse or grew up in environments where violence and neglect was the norm.
Lucas was 19 years old when he killed three people during a 1998 house burglary. He first targeted an 11-year-old son who saw Lucas from outside the house and tried to stop him with a baseball bat. Lucas shot him several times. When the teenage sister walked into the house later on, Lucas and co-conspirator Brandon Joseph Rhode tied her to a chair and Lucas shot her point blank. Rhodes killed the father when he arrived at the house.
Lucas was arrested days later, waived his Miranda rights, and confessed. After that, Lucas and his defense team tried and failed to link the substance abuse to his traumatic upbringing.
In court, Lucas’ attorneys hinged their defense on drugs — Xanax and Darvocet — and alcohol in his system at the time of the murders. According to a psychiatrist who testified on Lucas’ behalf, the killings likely occurred because his judgment was impaired at the time. He explained that Lucas’ “recollection or reasoning, his impulsivity, everything was eroded, almost destroyed.”
Attorneys tried to make the case that Lucas’ substance abuse problem was the result of lasting childhood trauma. Family members testified that he was raised in a turbulent environment, and watched his parents use crack cocaine, smoke marijuana, and “[drink] excessively” when he was a small boy. The family lived in “abject poverty.” Often, he had to protect his sister when their parents were fighting. And there was sexual abuse in the household, although it is unclear who the victims were.
The jury was unconvinced, and state and federal appeals courts rejected the notion that Lucas was too intoxicated to know what he was doing.
But Lucas’ story is shared by many people sentenced to capital punishment throughout the country. They weren’t born hardened, brutal criminals, but made life choices colored by profound trauma.
A growing body of research shows that childhood violence, neglect, or other kinds of disruptive experiences have lasting impacts on the brain and future behavior. In 2014, a reporter from the Texas Observer distributed a survey to 292 death row inmates in Texas, and more than half of the 41 respondents said they experienced “violent or abusive” growing up. Nine others reported a negative formative experience, such as parental neglect or living in poverty. In short, trauma impacts brain development.
“It’s…clear that not all criminality is the product of childhood abuse,” Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, told the publication. “But these early adverse situations reduce the resilience of human biology and they change us in very fundamental ways. Our brains are altered. And that’s what this research is bearing out.”
Through their upbringing, children learn how treat the people around them, Ochberg explained. If they are abused as kids, many normalize violence and resort to violence in the future.
A death penalty case in Pennsylvania recently triggered discussion about the complicated relationship between childhood trauma and violent crime. Terrance Williams’ entire life has been impacted from the constant abuse he experienced in his childhood and teenage years. In addition to regular beatings at home, Williams grew up with sexual assault as the norm. He was raped at age six and sexually abused and exploited by a teacher in middle school. In high school, he was similarly exploited by at least two older men. Years later, Williams killed two of his abusers and wound up on death row because of it, even though 26 child abuse and sexual assault experts supported his story.
“Terry was left alone to develop the means to deal with the horrors of his daily life,” child advocates wrote on his behalf. “Terry developed the ability to mask his reality and outwardly portrayed the role of a successful high school student who was respected and for whom there were high hopes. On the inside, Terry suffered in silence. His crimes are an undeniable reflection of this internal suffering and are directly connected to his history of abuse and trauma.”
Although their stories differ, Lucas and Williams were set down a criminal path instead of receiving early intervention and resources to help them cope with their trauma. Many of the people languishing on death row are in the same position.
The National Institute of Justice study concluded that kids subjected to physical violence, sexual violence, or neglect were more likely to commit delinquent offenses and go on to commit violent crimes as adults. An American Psychological Association study also found that “severe and multiple forms of abuse were endemic in this sample” of 43 death row inmates. Forty-one reported being physically abused as a child and 80 percent of the group were witnesses of violence. All of them said they were neglected and nearly all of them came from families with substance abuse problems.