More of the childhood of Donnie Rowe Jr. was told as his defense continued making its case for life without the possibility of parole on Sept. 27 during the sentencing phase of his death penalty trial at the Putnam County Courthouse.
Two more cousins testified, starting with “Uncle Mack’s” son Shawn Craig from Indiana. Describing the commune atmosphere they lived, Craig said they never knew what would happen one day to the next. He recalled them living anywhere from a barn to a warehouse, catching head lice from sleeping in straw and washing it out with gasoline.
Speaking about the adults in this family, Craig said all of the moving was because no one ever took “honest work.” He said Brad Lively, Rowe’s stepfather, was a “mean drunk” and that his own father can’t be trusted around children because he was known to be a molester. Craig then said he saw Brad beating Rowe like he was a full-grown man, but Rowe never gave his stepfather the satisfaction of crying. He said Brad also called Rowe “dumb” and “worthless.”
Tabatha Williams, a cousin from Florida, described a chaotic childhood that moved from place to place. She also witnessed Rowe being beaten like a grown man and was often punished by both Brad and his mother Christine. She said they would use anything from a 2x4 to steel-toed boots to a fence post in their beatings and recalled how Brad kicked Rowe in the back when Rowe was holding on to both ends of a doorway.
Williams said Rowe never said anything back to any verbal abuse he received, that he became introverted, and it seemed like animals were the only friends he had.
The jury from Grady County that found Rowe guilty of six counts, two being malice murder, heard lengthy testimony from Dr. Connie Campbell, an educational diagnostician from Missouri who for two years researched numerous records – school, medical, newspaper articles – attempted to present a picture of Rowe’s inadequate academic upbringing. Though she has not spoken with Rowe directly, she said her “client” was Rowe from when his school records begin to age 16 and stated it was her opinion that he was dyslexic as she is qualified to diagnose learning disabilities. Dr. Campbell also researched members of the Rowe family, including his mother and siblings (one older brother named Bobby and a younger sister named Lilly).
Dr. Campbell said Rowe’s case was a complicated one as it involved multiple school districts. She listed contributing factors as genetics, trauma and maternal age; Christine had three children by the age of 21 as Bobby was born when she was 15 with no father listed on the birth certificate. Per Rowe’s birth certificate, his mother was 17 when he was born in Baxley, Georgia.
Dr. Campbell was able to determine Rowe’s first move was to Indiana. She said Christine had a brother who died in a DUI crash and that Rowe’s biological father died from drowning after a boat wreck in 1974. She said by the time Rowe was 5 years, 4 months old, he had moved at least 15 times. That number was up to 21 by age 7, and in 1980 Christine and Brad Lively divorced (they reconciled in 1982).
Rowe was living in an “unsure world,” Dr. Campbell said. She said children need continuity and consistent intervention over time, and that retention, which she believed Rowe lacked at this time, is a “major life maker.” Dr. Campbell said that being held back in school would put Rowe in classrooms with students two years younger than him.
Dr. Campbell brought up other traumatic events such as a murder-suicide in Brad’s family and that Brad’s father was guilty of a felony DUI. By 1986, three of Rowe’s mother’s siblings had passed away. Dr. Campbell documented, in the first 16 years of Rowe’s life, 35 different homes.