By Randy Schultz
The debate about whether Duane Owen should live or die is about whether Duane Owen is the person he was or the person he supposedly has become.
Inmate 101660 at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford is serving two death sentences, six life sentences, one 15-year sentence and one five-year sentence for crimes committed in Boca Raton and Delray Beach between early February and late May of 1984. Owen’s three calculated rampages left 14-year-old Karen Slattery and 38-year-old Georgianna Worden dead and 18-year-old Marilee Manley near death. Owen’s case could inspire a script on CBS’s weekly creepfest Criminal Minds.
Owen has claimed that he sexually assaulted women to harvest their hormones, that he was a transsexual who carried out the attacks to “turn himself into a female.” He mocked the police: “Roses are red/yellow, white and pink/If you want to play my game/you’ve got to think.”
Barry Krischer, Owen’s co-counsel during the first Karen Slattery trial, tried unsuccessfully to get off the case because he found Owen so repugnant. Six years later, Krischer was elected Palm Beach County’s state attorney, calling Owen a reason he had given up defense work.
For those who have waited to see the state execute Duane Owen, key decisions may be near. Owen soon could face a death warrant, but his case also could become caught up in the latest debate over capital punishment in Florida.
In December, Owen had a hearing before the Office of Executive Clemency and the Florida Commission on Offender Review, seeking to have his death sentences commuted to life without parole. According to Owen’s lawyer, William McClellan, the state usually holds such hearings when a Death Row inmate appears to have exhausted all of his state and federal appeals. If Owen loses, as he almost certainly will, his case could go to the governor’s office for review and a possible death warrant.
Last month, however, the Florida Supreme Court delayed the execution of Jerry Correll because of concerns about how Florida administers lethal injection. The state’s three-drug protocol is similar to what Oklahoma uses. That state botched an execution last May, and the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether the Oklahoma system amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore is unconstitutional. Such a ruling could force Florida to change its execution method.
Whatever the method, Owen still could finally face his appointment with death. The state’s political leaders strongly support capital punishment. In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed the Timely Justice Act. There were as many executions during Gov. Rick Scott’s first term as there were in the previous 11 years.
McClellan tried to explain the seemingly inexplicable system by which Florida decides which of the 393 inmates on Death Row to execute. At the hearing, he said, the state was asking of Owen: “What has he done on the Row? Does he have any remorse? He went onto Death Row at a pretty young age. Has he changed?”
To McClellan, the 54-year-old Duane Owen is not the 23-year-old Duane Owen. “He has studied religion. He has studied physics. He has had professors say he has the concepts down. He came in with nothing, but he hasn’t wasted his time.
“Maybe at 18 he was this evil guy, and some people say that should determine everything. In my opinion, it shouldn’t. I’m a big Law & Order fan, and I think a lot about who we’re putting to death.”
Carey Haughwout is Palm Beach County’s public defender. She unsuccessfully argued an insanity defense at Owen’s second trial for killing Karen Slattery. Haughwout believes that the state should spare Owen’s life because of mental illness caused by a terrible childhood. Haughwout said as much in a letter to the Commission on Offender Review.
“I feel like I’ve watched him grow up,” Haughwout said in an interview. Owen has “tried to better himself. Sometimes, incarceration works.” Owen “is learning about how he got to where he is. All his crimes are related to his mental illness. It started with stealing women’s underwear.”
Haughwout has not visited Owen recently, but they correspond fairly regularly. “He tells me not to overwork myself.”
Rick Lincoln, who as a Delray Beach police lieutenant got Owen’s confession in the Slattery case, disagrees with those new characterizations of Owen. Lincoln describes Owen as “a calculating predator. A serial killer. So patterned.”
A 2002 response by the Florida Attorney General’s Office to an Owen appeal in the Slattery case typifies the state’s attitude toward claims for leniency based on his mental illness.
Assistant Attorney General Celia Terenzio called Owen a “malingerer” whose “delusion is fabricated.” Owen, she wrote, “studied up on sexual disorders and believed that the more crazy the story the more people would believe that he is crazy. He has a sexual disorder and anti-social personality disorder, but he is not psychotic.”
In Florida, attorneys for the condemned argue what the state classifies as “mitigating factors” to keep their clients alive. Prosecutors argue “aggravating factors,” one of which is that a murder was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
Terenzio stressed that factor in her argument 13 years ago that Owen should die for killing Karen Slattery.
Terenzio noted the trial court judge’s ruling in upholding the jury’s recommendation of death: “The Defendant stated that causing deliberate pain and fear would increase the flow of female bodily fluids which he needed for himself. The puncturing of Karen Slattery’s lung caused her to literally drown in her own blood... Each of the 18 cuts, slashes and/or stab wounds caused pain...The crime of murdering Miss Slattery evidenced extreme and outrageous depravity.”
In a letter to the Commission on Offender Review, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office also dismissed the mental illness argument. Assistant State Attorney Sherri Collins noted the six Florida Supreme Court rulings that have affirmed Owen’s convictions and sentences. “The context, details and Owen’s own words,” Collins wrote, “evidence a killer who targeted and then descended into the darkness of true evil.”
When could the ruling on Owen come? “Hard to tell,” McClellan said. One inmate has been waiting 18 months to find out. “It’s pretty bizarre how all this works.” Owen has been on Death Row for three decades, but in the last two years Florida has executed inmates who had spent more time there than Owen and inmates who had spent less time. Owen has filed many appeals, and in some cases the courts have taken many months to rule.
If Owen does die by whatever method the courts decide is constitutional, it will not be for the Karen Slattery murder or the Georgianna Worden murder, but for both. For those who were here 31 years ago, time barely has diminished the horror.
In her letter, Haughwout wrote, “The crimes Mr. Owen committed are unforgivable, but he is not beyond redemption.”
There may be debate about the second part of that sentence, but in the area where Owen prowled there is no debate about the first part.
Randy Schultz was acting city editor for The Palm Beach Post in the months after Duane Owen was arrested in 1984, and he wrote about the case as the paper’s editorial page editor. He is now a freelance writer and spent more than two months researching this story for The Coastal Star.