Death Watch: Can "Abandonment Rage" Spare Death Row Inmate's Life?

SCOTUS considers what could be Texas' first execution of 2020


In the months before her death, Tammy Gardner told friends and family, "The only way I'm going to get out of this relationship is by being dead." Her husband, John Stev­en "Steve" Gardner, terrorized Tammy. He beat her and raped her and promised to kill her if she left him. Nonetheless, Tammy found the courage to file for divorce. It was a couple of weeks from being final in 2005 when Gardner broke into her trailer on a rural road outside McKinney and shot her in the head. He was sentenced to death the following year and is scheduled for execution on Jan. 15.

In Texas and in the country at large, about half of all murdered women are killed by their intimate partners. The Texas Council on Family Violence estimated that in 2016, in cases where there was enough data to make a determination, 62% of intimate partner murders happened within two weeks of an attempt to end the relationship. This was the case for Tammy Gardner.

Much of what she endured is common in violent relationships. Gardner stalked her, belittled her, choked her, and tried to isolate her from friends and family. Though she was formerly outgoing and cheerful, court records say that after her marriage Tammy dropped weight, became introverted, and "lost her sparkle." Those close to her saw the marks left on her face by her husband's beatings but were afraid to contact authorities – and Tammy begged them not to. However, once he moved out, she seemed to perk up. A co-worker said Tammy had circled Feb. 7, 2005 – the date the divorce would be final – on a calendar at work and would stand before it, saying, "You're almost there. You're almost there."

Gardner had divorced a previous wife to marry Tammy, one of several marriages that showed the abuse he was capable of. He spent two years in a Mississippi jail for shooting one wife in her face and stomach, rendering her paraplegic and causing her to miscarry a month-old fetus. He threatened to snap the neck of a subsequent wife and skin her children alive, then kidnapped her from her job and led police on a high-speed chase. He also physically and sexually abused his wives' children.

All of this behavior is explained, Gardner's attorneys suggest, by an upbringing that left him with "abandonment rage." The condition (which is not recognized in the Diag­nos­tic and Statistic­al Manual of Mental Dis­orders) was first proposed by psychologists in 1999. Their theory says men threatened with abandonment kill their intimate partners "with excessive force" when they experience violence and shame at a young age and have a weak connection to their parents. This certainly describes Gardner. He is the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher who abused his wife and beat his children at least once a week, often with little provocation.

For nearly a decade, Gardner's attorneys have used the theory of abandonment rage to appeal his death sentence. They argue that his trial attorneys didn't adequately represent him when they failed to use the disorder in his defense, saying it would have explained Gardner's compulsive abuse of women and persuaded the jury to give him life without parole. Various state and federal courts have rejected the appeals, most recently in June, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that bringing up abandonment rage would have conceded Gardner's guilt and allowed prosecutors to focus on the havoc he had wreaked on his partners' lives.

Gardner's appeal is now before the U.S. Supreme Court; it's his last chance to avoid death. If the justices refuse to consider it, he'll be the first person executed in 2020. Seven more are scheduled to die by the end of May.

Billy Joe Wardlow, whose execution date is set for April, is the subject of a cover story in the winter issue of The American Scholar. Titled "This Man Should Not Be Executed," the piece isn't about guilt or innocence – Wardlow undoubtedly committed the murder that put him on death row. Rather, it's about how easy it is to make mistakes, both for a confused young man, just past the age of 18 and trying to escape a miserable upbringing, and also for the well­-meaning jurors who, deciding he would be a continuing danger, sentenced him to death. The author, Lincoln Caplan, describes Wardlow as a trusted peacemaker on death row, a thoughtful man beloved by fellow inmates, and a respected Dungeon Master in their regular games of D&D. It's highly recommended.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Death Watch, Tammy Gardner, Steve Gardner, Texas Council on Family Violence, abandonment rage, Billy Joe Wardlow, Lincoln Caplan

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