Condemned man’s lawyers cast doubt on fairness of psychiatric evaluation

They attack that process in new arguments filed with FL Supreme Court as inmate’s execution looms

By: - June 7, 2023 5:00 am
Florida Supreme Court

Florida Supreme Court. Credit:

Lawyers for death row inmate Duane Eugene Owen are still attempting to block his scheduled execution next week, disputing a panel of three psychiatrists who concluded that he is sane enough to be put to death for murdering a woman with a hammer decades ago.

In arguments filed Tuesday before the Florida Supreme Court, his state-appointed attorneys argue that those doctors — Wade Myers, Tonia Werner, and Emily Lazarou — became combative while evaluating Owen under the impression that he was faking mental illness to avoid execution.

According to testimony by a former attorney for Owen who witnessed the evaluation, “[t]hroughout the entirety of the evaluation, every time Owen got a sentence out, the [doctors] never accepted what he said or moved on to another topic, rather they continued to harp on the same points,” the brief says.

Defense witnesses, including a neuropsychologist who spent 13 hours over two days evaluating Owen via a battery of tests, have averred that he suffers psychiatric disorders including gender identity disorder, paraphilic sexual disorder, schizophrenia, and dementia, the brief argues.

His main delusion, the evidence suggests, is that he is a woman trapped in a male body but could become female by having sex with women and absorbing their femaleness. They didn’t die, he insists, because they live on within his body.

“Owen’s belief that he did not kill the victims because he took their essence into his body may be a delusional belief that could establish a severe mental disorder,” the brief reads.

“Whatever is going to happen to Owen is also going to happen to the two women whose essence he has extracted. In Owen’s mind, he truly believes that when you talk about him, you are also talking about two other people,” it says.

Execution date

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered Owen executed on Wednesday, June 14, in the murder of and sexual battery of Georgianna Worden in 1984; Owen was sentenced to death separately in teenaged babysitter Karen Slattery’s stabbing death and sexual assault at around the same time, also in Palm Beach County.

The execution is set for Thursday, June 15.

Once Owen’s attorneys raised questions about his mental fitness, DeSantis ordered the three psychiatrists to evaluate the inmate, which they did on May 22, reporting to the governor the next day that he understood the nature of the punishment and why it was to be inflicted upon him. U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires that understanding before an execution can happen.

They reported to DeSantis that Owen has no mental illness but is malingering to avoid the death penalty. Although he suffers from an antisocial personality disorder, they declared, he understands his situation.

A circuit judge held a hearing into the matter and ruled on June 4 that the execution could proceed. The Florida Supreme Court signed off on Monday but allowed Owen’s attorneys to file an appeal attacking the trial judge’s conclusions. The state has until 5 p.m. Wednesday to file its answer, and then the defense gets another day to reply to that. The court left open the possibility that it would set oral arguments.

A defense witness who performed an extensive evaluation of Owen specifically concluded that he is not malingering, the brief reads. In addition, it raises evidence of advancing dementia — several witnesses who have known him for years testified to his deterioration.

“Owen’s delusions did not come about as a result of the death warrant, rather he has experienced them for decades,” the brief says.

“Also important to this point, the circuit court failed to consider that Dr. Werner conceded that if the [psychiatrists are] wrong and Owen is not malingering, Owen’s belief that he did not kill the victims because he took their essence into his body may be a delusional belief that could establish a severe mental disorder,” it continues.


What counts is Owen’s condition now, his legal team argued.

“Whether Owen was competent to be executed in 1984 when he committed the crimes does not matter. Whether he was competent to be executed in 1997 also does not matter. Even whether Owen was competent to be executed in 2021 is irrelevant. The only relevant time period the circuit court should have considered when finding whether Owen is currently sane to be executed, is right now,” they wrote.

“Owen does not understand the nature and effect of why the death penalty is imposed on him. Owen has no rational appreciation of the connection between his crime and the punishment that he is to receive or any rational understanding of the fact that he’s going to be executed for those reasons,” they added.

“Here the circuit court’s order is fundamentally flawed for its refusal to recognize the impact of Owen’s delusional beliefs on his rational understanding of the reasons for his execution. It is hard to imagine a more impactful delusion than the belief that the victims which are the subject matter of the execution are not dead but live on inside his body.”

Correction: The original version of this story misreported Owen’s scheduled execution date. The governor has set it for Thursday, June 15.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.