The following article originally appeared in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
Invariably, the crimes for which people end up on death row are steeped in trauma, often consisting of the most violent deaths suffered by sympathetic victims. But it is also often the case that those accused of perpetrating them have traumatic stories themselves.
On Thursday, two experts told a group of defense attorneys how understanding this trauma can help spare their client’s life in court.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, half or more of people experience at least one trauma in their lifetime, and about 6% of adults will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some point. This is when people find it difficult to engage in normal activities for months following this trauma, according to the department.
Howard Fradkin, a Columbus-based trauma psychologist, explained how such experiences affect people’s ability to function and how they cumulatively worsen over time. Trauma consists of “physically and emotionally harmful or life-threatening events that have lasting effects on how we function,” he said.
Fradkin was speaking at the Capital Defense Seminar hosted Thursday and Friday by the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
Fradkin explained that structures at the front and top of the brain control things like thinking and planning, while structures in and at the base handle more instinctive functions. And he explained how trauma affects the interactions of these structures with each other.
“This is what happens in trauma; we flip our lid,” Fradkin said. “This whole part of the brain – the cortex, the frontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex – is disconnecting from our limbic system and the reptilian brain, the primitive brain.”
He added: “During a trauma, people lose their ability to think. Let’s go.”
While it’s common to have one or a few traumatic experiences, for some they repeat and worsen, Fradkin said. Sexual abuse, for example, is not only highly traumatic in itself, it often occurs in the context of other trauma, he said.
Family and neighborhood violence, emotional abuse, being in foster care and feelings of discrimination can all be sources of trauma.
If enough of these experiences accumulate, they can disrupt neurological, emotional and cognitive development and have been linked to higher rates of addiction, depression, criminal conduct and premature death, Fradkin said.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that people who have suffered severe and repeated trauma are well represented on death row.
Take, for example, Robert Van Hook, the last person to be executed in Ohio.
As a child, “Van Hook went back and forth between his father, who encouraged him to drink, use drugs and have sex with adult women; his mother, whose brother-in-law began grooming him for possible sexual exploitation; and the Johnson family, who provided him with a safe and loving environment,” his clemency report reads.
As an adult, Van Hook proved capable of inflicting extreme trauma, picking up a man from a Cincinnati gay bar in 1985, luring him into a vulnerable position, then attempting to decapitate him, slicing her abdomen and placing several foreign objects in it.
In prison, Van Hook racked up numerous disciplinary offenses, including stabbing a fellow death row inmate in the face. But within minutes of his execution, Joe D’Ambrosio, who spent 22 years on death row with Van Hook, said he was a wounded person who had not received the help he needed. needed.
“He had mental issues, I don’t care what anyone says,” said D’Ambrosio, who had been exonerated. “He would go for long stretches and then he would explode.”
Van Hook was far from alone on death row.
“We found that a disproportionate number of individuals executed in the United States in recent years share numerous functional impairments, including severe mental illness, brain damage or intellectual disabilities, and long histories of trauma and abuse. in childhood,” said Robert Dunham, Executive Director. of the Death Penalty Information Center, wrote in Bloomberg Law.
He added, “Our research shows that approximately three-quarters of federal death row inmates have documented histories of childhood trauma and abuse.”
Bob Stinson, a lawyer and psychologist, told defense attorneys gathered on Thursday that they should try to get jurors to consider the damage that trauma has done to their clients – especially when the potential sentence is death.
Stinson said he would start from a baseline, that “individuals have choices. They are morally culpable. They are morally responsible. They are to blame for the choices they make.
But as he considers mitigating factors, Stinson assesses any impairments the defendant might have.
“As the damaging or debilitating factors increase, the person’s moral culpability decreases,” Stinson said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t be held legally responsible. It just means that in the same way that we wouldn’t hold a 10-year-old child to the same level of guilt as a 40-year-old adult, he might be less punishable. They’re going to have consequences, but we’re trying to decide what those consequences should be.
. trauma accumulate ending for some in corridor death