Florida doctor involved in death row case criticized execution vigil

The doctor was part of a panel of three tasked with evaluating whether Duane Owen is too mentally ill to be executed.
Psychiatrist Emily Lazarou answers a juror's question during testimony in the John Jonchuck murder trial on April 11, 2019.
Psychiatrist Emily Lazarou answers a juror's question during testimony in the John Jonchuck murder trial on April 11, 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published June 14|Updated June 15

Tapped by the state to evaluate the mental health of an inmate scheduled to be executed this week, a Tampa Bay doctor posted a comment on social media criticizing a planned vigil for the death row prisoner.

Emily Lazarou was one of three doctors Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to decide whether Duane Owen, who was convicted in two 1984 murders in Palm Beach County, is too mentally ill to be executed. Lazarou, joined by Wade Myers and Tonia Werner, concluded that Owen was faking his mental illness and alleged schizophrenic delusions to avoid the death penalty.

A court agreed and deemed he was fit to be executed.

Related: UPDATE: Florida executes Duane Owen for 1984 killings of teen babysitter, mom of 2 slain months apart

Earlier this week, Lazarou, who is based in Hillsborough County, commented on a Facebook post about a vigil for Owen, saying that support should be shown for his victims instead.

Owen, 62, is set to die Thursday for his role in the rape and murder of a 38-year-old mother. He was also convicted in a separate case of killing a 14-year-old girl.

“I do not get this. Where are the people standing in vigil for the 14 year old he stabbed to death and raped while she was dying and the mother of 2 who he bashed her head in with a hammer and raped her dying body?” Lazarou wrote.

“Her kids found her the next morning. All of his victims. Who is staying in vigil for them? They didn’t have a team protecting them, because if they did, they’d still be living. This man stalked them from their windows and waited for them to be alone. This makes absolutely ZERO sense to me.”

When reached by phone Wednesday morning, Lazarou said she didn’t know her comment on the Facebook post was public.

She said she didn’t think it showed bias and that she was “speaking about the truth.” When reached Wednesday afternoon to check the accuracy of what she said to a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Lazarou said she did not believe the summarization was accurate but declined to explain how.

Lazarou’s comments about the vigil were in response to a Facebook post by Allison Miller, a capital defense attorney who ran to be the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney in 2022 and lost.

Miller, who is not an attorney on the case, said she was “struck” by Lazarou’s “incredibly unprofessional” comment.

“How can she be reliable in considering his mental health to be killed when she clearly has demonstrated a bias against him?” Miller said.

Miller said she plans to sit in vigil outside the prison on Thursday for Owen’s execution because she’s opposed to people’s lives being taken, whether through murder or the death penalty.

Miller said she has felt Lazarou is “very mocking” about schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

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“I have some misgivings about her personal beliefs related to serious mental illness, but I also know that the state, the prosecutors, respect the heck out of what she does,” Miller said. Miller noted that she has in the past hired Lazarou in cases with the public defender’s office.

Forensic psychiatrists should strive for objectivity, said Michael Norko, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and the former chairperson of the Committee on Institutional and Correctional Forensic Psychiatry of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Norko said a doctor has the obligation to protect against an appearance of bias, and that though there are circumstances where talking about a case is appropriate, a social setting is “not usually one of those.”

Norko said he couldn’t say whether or not Lazarou was biased, but said “one of our obligations is to try to preserve the integrity of the opinions we offer.”

When an expert is asked to conduct a forensic evaluation, Norko said they must first examine whether they’re individually capable of performing it objectively.

“If they feel they have strong feelings about a case or about the type of case, they shouldn’t accept the request for the evaluation,” he said.

Owen’s attorneys had not seen Lazarou’s post, a representative for the group said Wednesday. But Owen’s defense team previously accused the state-appointed panel of being combative during the evaluation.

During the evidentiary hearing for the court to decide whether Owen was fit to be executed, Lazarou testified that she “wasn’t entertaining the story” that Owen was telling about one of his delusions, because it didn’t come up during the time of the crime, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Gerod Hooper, the chief assistant at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel representing Owen, said he thinks Lazarou’s comments are irrelevant when it comes to the issue the court is tasked with deciding: whether or not Owen is competent enough for execution.

But he said the fact she was focused on the “heinous nature” of the crime “would cause me to worry that maybe she was biased in her evaluation of Owen.”

“The mere fact that she would take a position in that,” Hooper said. “That alone troubles me.”

This was the first time Lazarou served on a panel evaluating whether inmates are fit for execution. The other experts had previously been part of competency panels.

Lazarou frequently testifies for the state when defense attorneys raise claims about a defendant’s sanity or competence.

A Times story in 2018 reported that Lazarou had made more than $700,000 over a decade of work in Florida courts. About 90% of that was for work she did for prosecutors.

Defense lawyers who have questioned Lazarou in other cases have criticized her methods and style.

Ernest Boswell, a forensic psychologist who took a conflicting view from Lazarou in the 2015 Hillsborough trial of Matthew Buendia — a combat veteran who was accused of shooting a sheriff’s deputy — told the Times in 2018 that he found Lazarou to be “rude and arrogant.” Mark O’Brien, the defense attorney in that case, characterized her examination of the defendant as an “interrogation” and accused her of mimicking him from the witness stand.

Testifying in the 2015 Pinellas trial of Benjamin Bishop, who was accused of killing his mother and her boyfriend, Lazarou likened the defendant to an “Asian Beavis and Butt-Head.”

Defense lawyers in 2018 asked that Lazarou be excluded from being an expert witness in the case of John Jonchuck, who was accused of tossing his 5-year-old daughter off a Pinellas County bridge.

Another psychiatrist, Ryan Wagoner, tapped by the defense to review Lazarou’s work, said he found her evaluation of Jonchuck to be “very biased and coercive.”

Wagoner, in a deposition, noted that Lazarou spoke much more than Jonchuck did when she interviewed him. Wagoner was critical of her findings and the way she worded her report, which he said included language that is “more often used in novels than it is in a forensic report.”

In a deposition in the Jonchuck case, defense lawyers asked Lazarou whether she considers herself an advocate for victims.

“Oh, definitely, a victim advocate, yeah,” Lazarou said. “I hate that people are hurt. As a physician, I think that that would be universal.”

Lazarou ultimately was permitted to testify in Jonchuck’s trial. A jury rejected his insanity defense, finding him guilty of murder.

In the years since, Lazarou has continued to testify as an expert witness.

In 2019, she worked on the Hillsborough County trial of Nicole Nachtman, a woman who was accused of killing her mother and stepfather. The defense argued that Nachtman suffered from battered child syndrome, the result of years of abuse, and that she also had schizophrenia. A pair of defense experts testified that Nachtman was in a psychotic state when she committed the killings.

But Lazarou diagnosed Nachtman with a complexity of mood and personality disorders and opined that she was not insane when she committed the crimes. Nachtman was found guilty.

In Florida, like in most states that have the death penalty, the standard used to determine if someone is too mentally ill to execute is extremely narrow.

As long as someone has a rational understanding of why they’re being executed, that execution is permissible under precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Robin Maher, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Only two states — Kentucky and Ohio — have taken steps to prohibit the execution of seriously mentally ill inmates. A 2021 bill in Florida to extend the ban to Florida, sponsored by former St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, failed.

Times Staff Writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.