Letters from Death Row: The Biology of Trauma

New studies show that trauma biologically alters the brains of young boys in ways that affect their adult behavior.

Juan Ramirez grew up in poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, in a neighborhood infested with drug-and gang-related violence. By the age of 10 he’d started smoking marijuana and using inhalants. Within a couple of years he’d moved on to cocaine. By his middle teens he was drinking alcohol and smoking weed daily. A game he and his friends used to play in the Valley, called WAWA, involved spraying paint into a bag, sealing the lip around their mouths, and inhaling the fumes to get high.

Ramirez is the middle of five children and, according to court documents, his mother and father were alcoholics who disciplined their kids by whipping them with belts, clothes hangers, shoes—even tree branches. The severity of those beatings depended on the parents’ moods. Consequently, Ramirez spent most of his time playing outside in the street.

Inevitably, perhaps, he dropped out of school, became a drug addict and spent time in Texas Youth Commission facilities for juvenile offenders. But it was a single incident in 2003 that sealed his fate. One night in early January, 11 masked men burst into a small house in Hidalgo County to steal marijuana. By the time they left, six members of a rival drug gang in the house were dead. Ramirez was just 20 years old and the youngest of those the police said were responsible. Although he wasn’t identified as the gunman, under Texas’ law of parties, prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty.

For the uninitiated, the law of parties holds that if a person “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense,” then he or she is criminally responsible for the conduct of the other person. Of course the law can be applied inconsistently—and it often is.

death row inmate

Courtesy of Justin Clemons
Death row inmate.

This is Ramirez’s 11th year on death row, housed at the notorious Polunsky Unit in the rural East Texas town of Livingston. And his is one of numerous stories of childhood abuse and violence that condemned inmates have told the Observer as part of an informal yet wide-ranging survey of the men waiting for Texas to exercise the most brutal manifestation of its power.

Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates on Texas’ death row. It was designed to elicit information often missed in narratives about the death penalty: the effect that solitary confinement has on them; whether they had found religion in prison; and what sort of childhoods they had. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged.

Forty-one inmates responded. Ramirez was among 22 inmates (54 percent) who reported having violent or abusive childhoods. An additional nine inmates (22 percent) described their childhoods as “hard,” or said they had some sort of dominant negative issue—whether it was growing up in poverty and/or in a crime-filled neighborhood or that they endured the potentially debilitating experience of having a parent walk out on them. This is the final story in a series based on information obtained from those responses. Three others, which explore what books the inmates read, the effects of solitary confinement, and how religion factors into their lives, ran previously on the Observer website.

This is not an attempt to retry those cases or to mitigate the harm these men caused. But too often, defense attorneys lack the resources to launch in-depth investigations into the backgrounds of those facing capital convictions. And to quote the Death Penalty Information Center, “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.” The center cites a Dallas Morning News examination of 461 capital cases that found nearly one in four inmates was represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who had been disciplined for professional misconduct. Additionally, an investigation by the Texas Defender Service found death row inmates “faced a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that the stories of inmates’ childhoods that have emerged from the Observer’s survey are told in the inmates’ own words. When possible, they have been corroborated with court documents or contextualized by news reports.

The responses in our correspondence offer new evidence that supports findings from studies that show a correlation between childhood trauma and the potential for future violent offending. As Texas leads the nation’s death penalty states in executions, the letters also act as important reminders that it’s time we ask what this says about the fractured minds of those we execute and rethink the extent of our moral culpability.

At his trial, prosecutors said Ramirez was a member of a Rio Grande Valley gang known as the Tri-City Bombers. But of the 11 alleged perpetrators of what became known as the Edinburg Massacre, only two received a death sentence. Another, Robert Garza, was executed in 2013 for an unrelated offense. That same year, the alleged ringleader of the gang, Jeffrey Juarez, known as “Dragon,” got 20 years for drug conspiracy and trafficking but escaped prosecution for the killings in Edinburg due to lack of witnesses. Likewise, Reymundo Sauceda, who prosecutors said approved the homicides, had the capital murder indictment against him dismissed. The others in the gang either received prison terms or remain fugitives from the law.

In a letter to the Observer, Ramirez wrote, “I come from the poorest region of the nation, from a poor household. I pretty much had all the strikes against me before I had a choice of my own.”


In their paper “The Cycle of Violence,” published by the American Psychological Association, David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at the life histories of 43 men on death row. They discovered that all of them reported having been neglected as children, that an astonishing 94 percent had been physically abused, 59 percent sexually abused, and 83 percent had witnessed violence in adolescence.

Another study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” published in 2013 in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, surveyed 151 offenders and compared their answers with a “normative sample” of the population. The researchers found that the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group.

Many, if not most, condemned men were abandoned by their fathers, lived in foster care, or were abused or neglected, according to Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who 13 years ago conducted a critical review of the literature on death row inmates for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law. This observation, they wrote, is supported by the findings of seven of the clinical studies they looked at. “The presence of pathological family interactions in the histories of capital murderers is consistent with an extensive body of research demonstrating the role of disrupted attachment and disturbed family relationships in the etiology of violence,” they wrote. In the United Kingdom (which doesn’t have the death penalty), Gwyneth Boswell, a professor at the University of East Anglia, has spent 22 years conducting research into why young people become violent, and she has identified that trauma experiences in childhood are key features. Two of her studies suggest a high prevalence of abuse and traumatic loss in young offenders’ lives. In one study, Boswell examined the files of 200 young offenders and discovered 72 percent had experienced some kind of abuse—be it emotional, sexual, ritual, or a combination. And 57 percent had experienced the death or loss of contact of a parent. The total number of young offenders who had experienced abuse and/or loss was 91 percent. “Unresolved trauma,” Boswell wrote, “is likely to manifest itself in some way at a later date. Many children become depressed, disturbed, violent or all three, girls tending to internalize and boys to externalize their responses.”

Reading through the stories contained in the questionnaires that the inmates returned, you are confronted with a litany of childhood horror. There’s Eugene Broxton, sent to an orphanage before being cared for by an older sister whose partner then beat him. Broxton was sentenced to death in 1992 after breaking into a hotel room, tying up, robbing and shooting a couple that was staying there. The woman died; her husband survived. In response to Broxton’s defense counsel’s argument in mitigation concerning his home life, the state said, “his sister, his half-sister, his half-brother got the same kind of discipline. And they didn’t turn out to be mass murderers.” Willie Trottie—who was executed in September—wrote that he had an abusive and violent mother who beat him and his siblings with extension cords until they bled. “I was abandoned at a hotel in Houston, placed in foster homes, was beaten there, and I ran away from all of them only to be returned to [the homes] to be abused again,” he wrote. “I was about seven or eight years old.”

Trottie was convicted of the 1993 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Canada, and her brother Titus. Prosecutors said he had threatened to kill Barbara if she didn’t come back to him. Trottie admitted shooting the pair but said it was in self-defense after Titus Canada shot him first. (Trottie was arrested after driving himself to the hospital with gunshot wounds.)

In an appeal to the Supreme Court, Trottie’s lawyers argued that attorneys representing him at his original trial failed to produce sufficient testimony about Trottie’s abusive childhood. Maurie Levin, an attorney with vast experience defending capital cases, and who represented Trottie in his litigation concerning the lethal injection protocol, told me that all of her clients survived miserable childhoods rampant with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. “They were impoverished, often entirely outside the social safety net. … How much does it affect later behavior? Every current study says it does—developmentally, neurologically, you name it—and our clients’ stories bear that out.”

Jeff Wood, who was convicted under the law of parties for being an accomplice to the murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville in the mid-1990s, wrote that his father used to hit him with a razor strap so badly that Child Protective Services was called. During the punishment phase of his trial, Wood instructed his attorneys not to call any witnesses, and so evidence of his abusive childhood was never presented.

Clinton Young, who faces execution for his part in a double murder in the course of a carjacking, wrote that he grew up with an abusive father and an emotionally abusive stepfather. “My dad beat me with a 2×4 and [kicked me with] steel toe-capped boots. My step dad focused on making sure I feared him and that I knew my real father didn’t care about me—and that I wouldn’t amount to, in his words, ‘a hill of rabbit shit in life.’”

Aníbal Canales strangled his cellmate in 1997 and was sentenced to death three years later. “I think it would take way too much paper to try and talk about my childhood,” he wrote in response to the Observer’s questionnaire. “I grew up in a house that was both violent and abusive. My father was a deeply violent man [who] abused me and my family regularly. My mother was an alcoholic and abusive also. I lived in a jungle, and I learned to hide myself in the foliage that was my life—and hide deep. It wasn’t until late in life that I was able to talk about that part of my life.”

In his findings at Canales’ Fifth Circuit appeal, the judge conceded that “by [his] trial counsel’s own admission [he] did not hire a mitigation specialist, interview family members or others who knew him growing up, or ‘collect any records or any historical data on his life.’” During Canales’ sentencing, the only mitigation presented by his attorney was that he was “a gifted artist” and “a peacemaker in prison.”

The 5th Circuit added that if Canales’ trial attorneys had conducted a mitigation investigation, “they would have discovered an extensive history of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Canales’s mother was an alcoholic who neglected her children, and his father was violent, angry, and irrational. After Canales’s parents separated, his mother married a man who was physically abusive, beating Canales with a belt and fist and forcing him to strip naked prior to these beatings. Canales’s step-father sexually abused his sister, and Canales attempted, in vain, to protect her. The family lived in poor housing, infested with flea[s] and lice and located in ‘gang central.’ Canales’s grandparents were also physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, Canales’s mother left him with his father. The beatings then resumed, and Canales’s father would beat him ‘until his father got tired.’ This led Canales to abuse drugs and alcohol, ‘hook up with the wrong people,’ and begin committing crimes. He lived in half-way houses for part of his teenage years. Canales’s sister stated that the death of Canales’s mother affected Canales severely and that he ‘went off the deep end’ after she passed away.”

Thomas Whitaker wrote that his childhood was emotionally derelict, with no friends or peers and no connection to his family. In December 2003, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Whitaker and his family returned to their Houston home after dinner. Inside the house, a masked gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s brother, Kevin, and his mother, Tricia, before wounding his father, Kent, and Whitaker himself. Although it looked like a robbery, police eventually arrested Whitaker. He later confessed to hiring the gunman to kill his family because of what prosecutors termed an “irrational hate.”

And there’s Jedidiah Murphy, whose parents abandoned him at 5, forcing him to live out his childhood in a series of foster homes. “I could not tell you all of it were you to have all day,” he wrote. “It was violent and it did not help me in life at all. I don’t blame all my life’s ills on my childhood but I never had a shot with the way that I grew up. I learned the wrong way right off the bat, and hell it took forever to see what I was doing was wrong. By that time I was lost to alcoholism like my father and his father and so on.”

As if an abusive childhood weren’t bad enough, Hector Medina, another death row inmate who responded to the questionnaire, spent his in a country torn apart by a bitter civil war.

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