April is Child Abuse Prevention Month….

Prevent child abuse.
Reduce crime.
Stop the need for executions.

If we do a better job protecting our children from abuse and neglect, they will be less likely to commit crime later in their lives. This is a more enlightened and cost-effective approach to improving our society than executing people after they have committed a horrible crime. According to an article entitled Child Abuse and Neglect by R. Kempe, “Being abused as a child increased the likelihood of being arrested for violent crime by 38%.” Texas ranks 47th in dollars spent per child by the state child abuse and neglect agency in 2004. Texas continues to be first in executions. Our experience with Texas death row inmates, illustrates a long history of abuse for many of them. “How can we expect a certain level of humanity from people who have never experienced that level of humanity?” – TCADP Program Coordinator, Vicki McCuistion.

A few of Texas’ abused children:

1992 Chronically psychotic and brain damaged, Johnny Garrett had a long history of mental illness and was severely physically and sexually abused as a child, which the jury never knew. He was described by a psychiatrist as “one of the most psychiatrically impaired inmates” she had ever examined, and by a psychologist as having “one of the most virulent histories of abuse and neglect… encountered in over 28 years of practice”. Garrett was frequently beaten by his father and stepfathers. On one occasion, when he would not stop crying, he was put on the burner of a hot stove, and retained the burn scars until his death. He was raped by a stepfather who then hired him to another man for sex. It was also reported that from the age of 14 he was forced to perform bizarre sexual acts and participate in pornographic films. Introduced to alcohol by his family when he was 10, he subsequently indulged in serious substance abuse involving brain-damaging substances such as paint, thinner and amphetamines. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a state court finding that his belief that his dead aunt would protect him from the chemicals used in the lethal injection did not render him incompetent to be executed (for a murder committed when he was aged 17).

1992 Justin Lee May suffered from brain damage and mental impairments stemming from physical abuse he suffered as a child. He suffered multiple illnesses as a child and endured regular, severe beatings from his father. On at least one occasion he was beaten to unconsciousness. He suffered numerous head injuries in early adulthood. In 1986 a medical examination revealed significant neurological brain damage and psychological abnormalities.

1998 Joseph Cannon was executed for a crime committed when he was 17. Post-conviction examination resulted in a diagnosis of organic brain syndrome. One psychologist considered Cannon’s case history “exceptional” in the extent of the brutality and abuse he had suffered as a child. At the age of four he had been hit by a pick-up truck and suffered a fractured skull and other injuries. He was in hospital for 11 months and unconscious for part of that time. His head injury left him hyperactive. He suffered from a speech impediment and did not learn to speak clearly until he was six.

2002 Gary Etheridge was physically abused by his father, particularly when his father was drunk. His mother suffered mental illness and made repeated suicide attempts, one of which Gary witnessed as a child. He was repeatedly raped and physically abused by an older brother starting from when he was six years old. Gary Etheridge began using drugs and getting into trouble with the law from the age of 12. His four brothers also brought up in this abusive environment, have all been to prison. Gary attempted suicide on at least two occasions, once after being raped while serving a prison term for a prior, non-violent offence. His severe depression, when left untreated outside prison, contributed to his self-medicating with illegal drugs. He was intoxicated on a combination of heroin and cocaine when the sexual assault and murder of 15 year old Christi Chaivierre occurred. The jury’s verdict that he was an unacceptable risk to society and should be killed was carried out on August 20, 2002.

2005 At the time of the crime, Troy Kunkle was just over 18 years old, with no criminal record, and emerging from a childhood of deprivation and abuse. At times, his parents had suffered from mental illness. When Troy Kunkle was 12, his father’s mental condition deteriorated, resulting in severe mood swings during which he would subject Troy Kunkle to severe physical abuse. It was during this time that the boy’s problems at school escalated, conduct which would later be used by the state in its effort to persuade the jury to vote for his execution. In post-conviction evaluations, a psychologist concluded that Troy Kunkle was suffering from schizophrenia; a diagnosis he said was backed up by prison records. He stated that much of Troy Kunkle’s early adolescent behavior problems could be “linked to his father’s aggressive and psychotic behavior” towards him throughout his childhood , as well as to the lack of nurturing when his mother was herself suffering from serious mental illness. The psychologist concluded that an expert evaluation at the time of the trial would likely have shown Troy Kunkle’s emerging mental disorder, and the exacerbating effect of substance abuse on this. The jury heard no expert testimony, however.