Southern Arizona Online, a publication of the Tucson Citizen

Fetal alcohol legacy: mayhem and murder


Attorney Carla Ryan says many on death row may have FAS or FAE.

The nation's prisons are home to an untold number of convicted killers whose brains were damaged in utero when their mothers drank, says one Tucson defense lawyer who specializes in the death penalty.
"As you start looking at other cases, you see the same behavioral pattern, the same facial features, the lack of understanding of cause and effect," says attorney Carla Ryan.
Ryan and her legal team convinced a judge last April that John Patrick Eastlack should not be sentenced to die for the 1989 murders of an elderly Tucson couple, based in part on his fetal alcohol syndrome.
Raised by an educated, loving adoptive family, Eastlack's FAS went undiagnosed until this year. A geneticist at the University of Arizona made the diagnosis, using photos from Eastlack's childhood and other information. Facial differences in FAS children fade as they mature.
Originally sentenced to die for his crimes, Eastlack, 30, has been sentenced to life in prison. It is not expected that he will ever be released.
Eastlack is a case study in nature vs. nurture.
"I always thought your environment seemed to play so much more of a role," said James Crowdes, a legal assistant who worked on Eastlack's appeal.
But when the legal team researched Eastlack's birth family, it determined that was where the child, who never met his parents, fit in.
"He was the missing link," Crowdes said.
"We went back to the turn of the century and found a lot of mental illness," Ryan said. "There were four or five suicides, several institutionalizations. We went back as far as his great-great-grandparents and found drug abuse as well as alcoholism at every level."