Beats Being on Death Row: The End of David Earl Miller’s Lifelong Battle

The Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee recently made headlines for executing another death row inmate – its third this year.

David Earl Miller holds the record for the longest-serving prisoner on Tennessee’s death row. He was executed on December 6, 2018, almost 37 years after he was arrested for the murder of Lee Standifer.

electric chair for deathrow

He was 22, she was 23 and they were dating at the time of the incident. The murder was brutal. Miller was convicted and sentenced to death a year after his arrest. He also admitted responsibility for Standifer’s death.

With Miller’s death, maybe you can say that justice is finally served. But, is it? Or is there more to this than what the records say?

Who is Lee Standifer?

Court documents revealed that Standifer was born with a “diffused brain damage” and “mildly retarded”. Family members, particularly her mother, remembers her as a positive and happy person. She was good with certain things like reading but other tasks remain a challenge for her.

Despite her condition, she was able to finish high school in 1976. She soon found a job at a chicken packaging place and moved to her own place in downtown Knoxville. Co-workers recalled that she was never absent nor late.

It wasn’t clear how she met Miller but her mother recalled her mention about meeting a new friend in the library. They were seen around the city together the day the murder happened. Her body was found in the woods the next day. She was repeatedly struck with a fireplace poker and her lifeless body bound by a tightly-knotted rope around her wrists and neck.

His Dark Past

At the time of Standifer’s death, Miller already had previous run-ins with the law. He’d been arrested before on two counts of rape though both charges were dismissed.

Since then, he was living a vagabond’s life. Using only his wits to survive on the streets of Ohio, where he grew up. He also admitted to selling sexual favors in exchange for room and meal when nothing else works.

How did he come to live this way? First, let’s look at how his life started.

David Earl Miller is the product of a one-night stand between his mother, Loreta Winkelman, and a man she met at a bar. She was 17 when she got pregnant and was rarely sober the whole time. Ten months after David was born, she married a violent alcoholic ex-Marine named John E. Miller. The couple went on to have three more children, one of which was also mentally challenged.

According to local social worker records, Loretta never cared about her children. She loved going to low-class bars and hooking up with the men there. She was also fond of whipping David with whatever she could get her hands on at the smallest infraction.

Her husband, John, is no different when it comes to inflicting abuse. In fact, he was described as a “sadistic brute who terrorized the entire family”. He was especially cruel to David.

A report by one of Miller’s federally-provided mental health expert Dr. Pablo Stewart stated:

John knocked David out of a chair, hit him with a board, threw him into a refrigerator with such force it dented the refrigerator and bloodied David’s head, dragged him through the house by his hair and twice ran David’s head through the wall. John attempted to break David’s arm by twisting it. John kicked, punched, slapped, and strangled David. John hit David with his fists and other objects in the face, mouth, head, abdomen, genitals, and buttocks. David lived in fear that his stepfather was going to beat him to death.

Sexual Abuse

Physical abuse is not the only trauma the young David has to cope with. He had his first sexual assault experience at the hands of an older cousin when he was five years old. At 12, his grandfather’s friend took him to a cabin and forced him to do unspeakable things. His mother, instead of helping him, injured him in a way that destroyed any chance for a normal life.

When the couple divorced after a 10-year violent marriage, the sexual abuse got worse. Loretta turned to David for sexual gratification. Yes, his own mother would force him to have sex with her. She would continue raping him until he was 14.

When authorities got wind of what’s happening in the Miller household, they placed the children under foster care.

Signs of Trauma

With his turbulent childhood, it’s no surprise that David showed signs of depression and PTSD as a kid. He’d sometimes zone out and find himself in places but had no memory of how he got there. He experienced seizures, extreme anxiety and short-term memory loss. He also had recurring episodes of losing contact with reality.

Overdosing on anti-depression pills, marijuana, alcohol and other addictive substances helped him cope. It at least reduced his anxiety, auditory hallucinations and disassociation. The effects of this childhood trauma would dominate his future actions.

His story is not uncommon in prisoners though. In fact, jails seem to be the de facto mental health care provider in the US. Studies also found that the isolation caused by high cost of prison calls may worsen mental health of American inmates.

That Fateful Night

Miller and Standifer went out together for the first time on May 20, 1981. He took her to the home of a baptist minister who picked him up while hitchhiking. He and Miller were also reported to have sexual relations.

According to reports, Miller didn’t remember much of what happened that night. He only remembered her grabbing him and digging her fingernails into him. Then he hit her with the back of his hand which made her lose consciousness. He had no memory of striking her with the fireplace poker nor of dragging her body through the woods.

The minister was the first to discover the crime scene. He sent Miller away the following morning. He described the crime scene as indicating a frenzied rather than cautious, deliberate actions. Miller also made no attempts to hide the crime as the body is in a visible location along the driveway.

Dr. Stewart declared that Miller’s response to Standifer grabbing his hand are symptoms of affective dysregulation. It’s an emotional reactivity commonly seen in persons suffering from trauma that has occurred early in life. In his case, the trauma is inflicted by the very persons entrusted to take care of him.

Standifer’s actions that night triggered a traumatic childhood memory of his mother hurting him. This leads to a violent reaction which ended her life and – in a way – his.

Final Moments

Before his execution, Miller was asked about his final words. His first answer was unintelligible but when asked the second time, he said “beats being on death row”.

From those few words, we can only imagine the horrors he experienced for the past 37 years. He preferred a quick painful death than staying alive waiting for his eventual death. It says a lot about what death row inmates go through every passing day.

Miller is just one of the thousands of inmates who are suffering from mental illnesses. Yet, the system is not doing enough to treat or even to understand their predicament.

Emotional support and understanding rather than judgement is what they need. Our extensive list of prison support groups can help you connect your loved ones in jail to people who are ready to listen. Together, we can build a more understanding world for them.

About Judy Ponio

Judy Ponio has written plenty of articles about prison in the United States and how it affects the prisoners and their families. She continues to write in the hopes of bettering the lives of inmates all over the country.

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