Experts: Trauma builds, ending for some at death row

By: - November 18, 2022 4:50 am

An empty prison cell. Getty Images.

Invariably, the crimes over which people land on death row are soaked in trauma, often consisting of the most violent deaths suffered by sympathetic victims. But it’s also often the case that those accused of perpetrating them have traumatic histories of their own.

On Thursday, a pair of experts told a group of defense attorneys how understanding that trauma can help spare their client’s lives in court.

Half or more people experience at least some trauma in their lives and about 6% of adults will have post traumatic stress disorder at some point, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s when people find it hard to engage in normal activities for months on end as a consequence of that trauma, the department says.

Howard Fradkin, a Columbus-based trauma psychologist, explained how such experiences affect people’s ability to function and how they become cumulatively worse over time. Trauma consists of  “physically and emotionally harmful or life-threatening events with lasting effects on our functioning,” he said.

Fradkin was speaking as part of the Capital Defense Seminar being held 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 the structures at the inside and the base handle more instinctive functions. And he explained how trauma  affects those structures’ interactions with each other.

“Here’s what happens during a trauma; we flip our lid,” Fradkin said. “This whole part of the brain — the cortex, the frontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex — disconnect from our limbic system and the reptile brain, the primitive brain.”

He added, “During trauma, people no longer have their thinking cap on. It’s gone.”

While it’s common to have one or a few traumatic experiences, for some they’re repeated and compounding, Fradkin said. Sexual abuse, for example, is not only in itself very traumatic, it often occurs against the backdrop of other traumas, he said.

Family and neighborhood violence, emotional abuse, being in foster care, and feeling discriminated against can all be sources of trauma. 

If enough of those experiences accumulate, they can disrupt neurological, emotional, and cognitive development and have been associated with greater rates of addiction, depression, criminal conduct, and early death, Fradkin said.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that people who have suffered severe, 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 was bounced 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 eventual sexual exploitation; and the Johnson family, who provided him with a safe, loving environment,” his clemency report said. 

As an adult, Van Hook showed himself capable of inflicting extreme trauma, picking up a man in a gay bar in Cincinnati in 1985, luring him into a vulnerable position and then trying to decapitate him, slashing open his abdomen and placing several foreign objects in it. 

In prison, Van Hook amassed scores of disciplinary violations, including stabbing a fellow death-row inmate in the face. But in the minutes after his execution, Joe D’Ambrosio, who served 22 years on death row with Van Hook, said he was a damaged person who didn’t get the help that he needed.

“He had mental problems, I don’t care what anyone says,” said D’Ambrosio, who had been exonerated. “He would go for long periods of time and then he would explode.”

Van Hook was far from alone on death row.

“We’ve found that a disproportionate number of individuals executed in the U.S. in recent years share many functional impairments, including severe mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual disabilities, and long histories of childhood trauma and abuse,” 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 prisoners have documented histories of childhood trauma and abuse.”

Bob Stinson, a lawyer and psychologist, told the defense attorneys gathered Thursday that they should try to get jurors to consider the damage trauma has done to their clients — particularly when the potential penalty is death.

Stinson said he would start from a baseline, that “Individuals have choices. They’re morally culpable. They’re morally responsible. They’re blameworthy for the choices they make.”

But as he considers mitigating factors, Stinson weighs any impairments the defendant might have.

“As the damaging or impairing factors go up, the person’s moral culpability goes down,” Stinson said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be legally held responsible. It just means that in the same way we wouldn’t hold a 10-year-old child to the same level of blameworthiness as a 40-year-old adult, they may be less punishment-worthy. They’re going to get some consequence, but we’re trying to decide what that consequence should be.”

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.