Lessons from lives of 37 Texas murderers show different paths to death row

May 07, 2003

Murder often begins at a terrifyingly young age. It is an awful journey - frequently launched by physical and sexual violence, bullying and neglect -that terminated in 1997 with the execution of 37 men convicted of murder in Texas.

This road to perdition has been chronicled in a new study exploring the lifelong personal and environmental events and risk factors these men faced. The study, published in the journal Violence and Victims, compares the lives of men convicted of committing heinous and less- heinous murders.

The two categories were based on the severity of violence. The heinous murders were marked by extreme rage and brutality, use of multiple weapons and a seeming lack of remorse, according to lead author Dorothy Van Soest, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. For example, one man in this group shot, stabbed and strangled his victim. Another stabbed his victim 50 times. A third man killed someone, stuffed the body in the trunk of his car, talked casually to a police officer and then went to a party.

The less-heinous murders tended to be committed during the course of a robbery or by men who were strung out on drugs and were stopped by the police. Their criminal histories were largely marked by property crimes.

"We need to understand violence better. That does not mean condoning violence," said Van Soest. "However, we need to switch the focus from punishment to prevention. We need to look at what causes violence so we can understand the paths leading to extreme violence." Van Soest began the research while she was a University of Texas at Austin social work professor and associate dean. She decided to focus on Texas because that state has the highest rate of executions in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s. Texas has accounted for more than one-third of all executions, and in 1997 the 37 men represented half of the people put to death in the United States.

Of the 37 men in this study, 22 were white, 13 were black and two were Latino. Among the whites, 16 of the crimes were evaluated as heinous and six as less heinous. There were six heinous and seven less heinous among the blacks while the two Latino murders were split between the two categories.

A goal of the research, Van Soest said, was to examine the multiple constellations of risk factors and see how they may have influenced the lives of men who were executed. To do this, she and her colleagues reviewed all available documents and reports on the men. These included reports and testimony given at their trials, appeal documents and data from their psychological, neurological, medical, social service, welfare, school, probation, and military records. In addition, the researchers examined prison packets kept by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which contained their social and criminal histories and an FBI report on their criminal histories. Despite all of these sources, many of the records were incomplete or superficial, she said, and the researchers could not determine whether some of the risks were present in an individual's life.

The most striking factor that springs from the study is the prevalence of childhood violence in the lives of many of these men. Of the 20 men for whom there is evidence of childhood physical abuse, 15 later were convicted of committing heinous murders. Five of the men in the less-heinous category also were victims of childhood physical abuse. In addition, virtually all those whose childhood backgrounds included sexual abuse, physical abuse and physical or emotional neglect were convicted of committing the most-heinous crimes.

The men in the heinous category were more likely to be white, poor and to have gotten involved with alcohol and drugs at an early age. The mean starting age for alcohol was 12.6 years and it was 13.7 years for other drugs. In addition, 10 of the 12 men who perpetrated sexual abuse were from the heinous group. These men also were more likely to suffer from hallucinations and some form of brain dysfunction.

"There is some evidence that when these men were boys they tried to be good, and later retreated to alcohol and drugs at an early age. They were terribly abused and were just trying to survive. Some of the cases were heartbreaking, but they turned out to behave as if they were monsters rather than hurt human beings," said Van Soest.

Men in the less-heinous group were more likely to have bullied their peers and had profiles that included being black, having problems in school, dropping out of high school and having a juvenile crime record.

"When people looked at these individuals they would tend to say, 'These kids are trouble,'" said Van Soest. "Another thing that this study shows is that black men were executed by Texas for less- heinous crimes than those committed by whites, which is consistent with how the death penalty has been applied in this country."

She added that one of the damning findings of the study was a seeming invisibility of early community intervention when these men were young.

"Society seemed to have two approaches in relation to the men in the study and both were damaging," Van Soest said. " The most heinous, as boys, withdrew and self-medicated their pain. The less heinous received ineffective or no intervention as children, and I suspect that they became criminalized as they entered the justice system.

"We have hints, not answers, from this study about what went on in the lives of these men. For example, most people who are victims of abuse do not commit violence, but those in the most-heinous group were all child victims of violence. We need to further look at the multiple constellations of risk factors and how they work together. We also need to educate people who work with children about what those factors are and counter them with protective ones."
Co-authors of the study are Toni Johnson and Beverly McPhail, both of whom are expected to receive their doctorates in social work later this month from the University of Texas at Austin, and Hyun-Sun Park, a University of Texas at Austin doctoral student in social work.

For more information, contact Van Soest at (206) 543-8927 or dorothyv@u.washington.edu

University of Washington

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