Attorneys say inmate ‘severely mentally ill, brain damaged’

Attorneys for Death Row inmate Duane Owen argued Wednesday that the Florida Supreme Court should issue a stay of Owen’s scheduled execution to see if he is mentally competent to be put to death.

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  • | 9:25 a.m. May 26, 2023
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Attorneys for Death Row inmate Duane Owen argued Wednesday that the Florida Supreme Court should issue a stay of Owen’s scheduled execution, allowing time to delve into whether he is mentally competent to be put to death.

The attorneys filed documents at the Supreme Court after Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Owen, who was convicted of committing two murders in Palm Beach County in 1984. DeSantis directed three psychiatrists to evaluate Owen on Tuesday and report findings by the end of the day Wednesday.

While the findings were pending, Owen’s attorneys filed a 62-page brief at the Supreme Court arguing, in part, that Owen suffers from mental illness and brain damage and should not be executed. The brief contended that Owen’s due-process rights had been violated because “no jury or court ever heard Owen’s compelling mitigation” related to his mental condition.

“Although Owen submits that he should not have made it to this stage of the appeal as he is incompetent to proceed, Owen’s declining mental condition, schizophrenia, and fixed delusions also place Owen outside of the class of individuals allowed to be executed because he lacks the sanity to be executed,” the brief said.

DeSantis on May 9 signed a death warrant for Owen, with the execution scheduled for June 15. DeSantis’ order Monday for a psychiatric examination included putting a temporary hold on the execution — though the order expressed doubts about the insanity arguments and made clear the execution could take place June 15.

Owen’s lawyers sent a letter to the governor that included a neuropsychologist’s recent evaluation of the inmate’s competency. DeSantis’ order said nothing in the neuropsychologist’s report “demonstrates that Owen lacks the mental capacity to understand the nature of the death penalty and the reasons why it was imposed.”

DeSantis issued the death warrant in Owen’s murder of Georgianna Worden, who was bludgeoned with a hammer and sexually assaulted in her Boca Raton home in May 1984, according to the death warrant and court records.

Owen, now 62, also was sentenced to death in the March 1984 murder of 14-year-old Karen Slattery, who was babysitting at a Delray Beach home, according to state and federal court documents. Slattery was stabbed to death.

“The Slattery and Worden cases are legally distinct but factually similar,” a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a 2012 decision turning down an appeal by Owen in the Slattery case. “In each murder, Owen broke into a private home late at night, removed most of his clothing, sexually assaulted the victim, and brutally murdered the victim (he killed Slattery with a knife, Worden with a hammer). Delray Beach and Boca Raton police worked together to investigate the murders and, after Owen’s arrest, questioned Owen about both murders. Owen confessed to both murders on the same day.”

But the brief filed Wednesday described Owen as a “severely mentally ill, brain damaged individual” and said the recent evaluation by neuropsychologist Hyman Eisenstein “uncovered new evidence regarding Owen’s competency and insanity.”

“Dr. Eisenstein is a qualified neuropsychologist who has evaluated Owen and found he suffers from schizophrenia and severe delusional thought processes which render him legally insane and incompetent to proceed,” the brief said.

The brief detailed a troubled childhood in which Owen’s parents died and he suffered sexual abuse.

“Growing up, Owen had no support system, no guidance, no structure that he began operating on impulses that were very primitive,” the brief said. “Owen grew up in a household where predatory behavior — whether for pleasure of beating, brutalizing, humiliating, or for sexual gratification — was an everyday event.”

A Palm Beach County circuit judge last week rejected arguments raised by Owen’s attorneys. Along with seeking a stay Wednesday, Owen’s attorneys urged the Supreme Court should send the case back to a lower court for a competency determination and an evidentiary hearing.


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