1786: David Nelson, but not William Horbord 1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

1986: Jerome Bowden

June 24th, 2011 Headsman

A quarter-century ago this date, a “scared” mentally disabled prisoner named Jerome Bowden was electrocuted in Georgia for a crime many think he did not commit.

Bowden drew a death sentence for a robbery-murder on the strength of two very suspect pieces of evidence:

  • the accusation of a juvenile co-defendant who might well have been the real murderer; and

  • a signed confession Bowden could barely understand

While present-day DNA exonerations are fortunately forcing reconsideration of the ubiquitous problem of false confessions, Bowden’s was understandably doubted even before his execution.

Asked to explain his signature on a document obviously beyond his capacity to compose himself, he gave a confused answer that seemed to indicate he’d been led to sign it by a suggestion that it would keep him out of the electric chair.

“Detective Myles had told me this here … Had told me about could help me, that he could, you know, which I knew that confessing to something you didn’t take part in was-if you confess to something that you didn’t do, as if you did it, because you are saying that you did.”

(This remark inspires us to re-issue our occasional reminder: do not talk to the police.)

Bowden’s assent to this fatal “admission” sadly evokes the characteristic eagerness to please one often encounters in the developmentally disabled — sometimes, as with Joe Arridy, to their own destruction.

It’s noticeable, too, in Bowden’s incongruously ingratiating last statements, recordings of which were taken and subsequently leaked publicly. This and others are available at SoundPortraits.org.*

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Bowden had been evaluated with an I.Q. of 59 at the age of 14, the examiner reporting him “functioning at the lower limits of mild retardation. He has little or no insight into his situation … He is easily distracted and has a tendency to act on impulse regardless of the consequences.”

And even though the authorities hustled through a test the day before his execution that reckoned Bowden with an I.Q. of 65 — still solidly below the conventional threshold for mental disability, but good enough for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — the whole affair shook the state. It “unsettled more than a few persons in government and law enforcement,” the Atlanta Constitution later editorialized.

Its [the state’s] reasoning was grievously faulty. Whether Bowden understood his fate or not, whether he knew right from wrong — he was indisputably handicapped …

Most states have progressed beyond the dated right-wrong standard in weighing such cases … and ask: Could the defendant help himself? There is compelling evidence that Bowden could not …

brute whimsy was given full sway. For the state of Georgia, it was a willful lapse of decency.

-Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1986 editorial**

This lapse of decency rippled over the months ahead until Georgia in 1988 became the first state to enact a law barring the execution of the mentally disabled.

Maryland followed suit the next year, but the U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1989 decision Penry v. Lynaugh that executing such prisoners did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”.

While that decision was reversed in 2002, the putative ban on executing the mentally disabled in the United States remains very far from a bright line. It’s up to the states themselves to decide who falls under that definition,† and at least some have given ample indication that they’re prepared to exploit any expediency necessary to get a fellow onto death row, or keep him there. Earlier this very week, Texas (of course) put to death a man of dubious competence, Milton Mathis, essentially by cherry-picking its data and having federal appellate review barred on a technicality.

A quarter-century on, those ripples started by Jerome Bowden still have a way to go.

* We’ve previously featured another recording in this set of a particularly frightful botched electrocution.

** Both Constitution quotes, and the childhood IQ examiner quote, as cited in Robert Perske’s Unequal Justice?.

† As an irony of its early adoption, Georgia later found itself with an unusually stingy legal standard for protecting disabled defendants from the death penalty.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Georgia,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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4 thoughts on “1986: Jerome Bowden”

  1. Al says:

    Jerome Bowden did in fact commit the crimes against Kathryn Stryker and her mother in Columbus, Georgia. Bowden went voluntarily to the police after he found out he was a suspect. He wasn’t as dumb as his supporters tried to make him out to be.

  2. Greg Eichelberger says:

    I’m just curious, is there ANYONE featured on this Web site that actually DESERVED the death penalty?

    Just asking …

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