Battle-Scarred Military Veterans & The Death Penalty: 300 Veterans on Death Row need our help!!!

BattleScars

300 Veterans, Some With PTSD, Are on Death Row: Report, by Tracy Connor NBC

During Courtney Lockhart’s capital murder trial, the jury heard testimony that he had returned from a bloody 16-month deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, a changed man.

His sweet nature was replaced by anger and paranoia, his ex-fiancee said. He hid in the closet at night, started living out of his car, drank too much and once put a gun to his own head.

The defense argued that Lockhart, who was dishonorably discharged, was suffering from untreated PTSD and wasn’t in his right mind when he abducted, robbed and fatally shot college student Lauren Burk in 2008.

The Alabama jury rejected the prosecution’s call for the death penalty and sentenced him to life. But in a rare move, a judge overrode the panel’s decision and put him on death row.

The case of Lockhart — whose brigade had a dozen other men charged with murder or attempted murder after coming home from Iraq — is highlighted in a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes capital punishment.

“At a time in which the death penalty is being imposed less and less, it is disturbing that so many veterans who were mentally and emotionally scarred while serving their country are now facing execution,” said Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director.

About 300 veterans are on death row nationwide, about 10 percent of all those condemned to die, the group estimates.

It’s unclear how many have been diagnosed with PTSD or have symptoms, but Dunham says that in too many cases, a veteran’s mental scars are not examined closely enough by defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, juries and governors who can commute death sentences.

The first prisoner executed this year, Andrew Brannan, was a Vietnam vet on disability for PTSD and bipolar disorder when he fatally shot a deputy nine times during a speeding stop.

Dash-cam video showed Brannan dancing in the street and saying “shoot me” before he pulled a rifle from his car and fatally shot the 22-year-old cop. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop his lethal injection.

Kent Scheidigger, legal director of the pro-capital punishment Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said that since PTSD does not normally cause sufferers to become violent, the condition “may not have anything whatever to do with the crime.”

“If a crime is sufficiently heinous, a death sentence may be the just outcome,” he said. “Mental issues may be weighed in the balance, but they would have to be very severe before they outweighed, say, torture or serial killing.”

At Lockhart’s trial, according to media accounts at the time, a prosecution expert testified that

he was not mentally ill and knew what he was doing was wrong when he killed Burk. A defense expert said he had symptoms of PTSD but not a diagnosed case.

Jim Burk, left, and Viviane Guerschon, right, attend a State Board of Adjustment hearing with a portrait of their daughter Lauren Burk, on Oct. 7, 2014, in Montgomery, Ala. Brynn Anderson / AP, file

After the jury heard testimony from those close to Lockhart about the problems he experienced after his military service, the panel voted 12-0 to spare his life, but the judge overruled them, saying they didn’t know about other robberies he had committed.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor later wrote that jurors were “influenced by mitigating circumstances relating to severe psychological problems Lockhart suffered as a result of his combat in Iraq.”

“Lockhart spent 16 months in Iraq; 64 of the soldiers in his brigade never made it home, including Lockhart’s best friend,” she wrote. “The soldiers who survived all exhibited signs of posttraumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions. Twelve of them have been arrested for murder or attempted murder.”

The Death Penalty Information Center said its report was meant as a “wake-up call” to spark conversation about imposing capital punishment on trauma survivors.

“The country owes its veterans a thorough examination of the use of the death penalty in their cases, even when their offenses are especially grievous,” the report said.

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Vets suffering from PTSD need our help, James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine and Stephen N. Xenakis, USA Today, November 11, 2015

Too many veterans are sentenced to death row by judges and juries who don’t understand.

The first person executed in the United States this year, Andrew Brannan, was a Vietnam veteran who had been granted 100% disability because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems stemming from his military service. Approximately 300 other veterans remain on death row and face execution. As retired Army general officers, lawyers and a psychiatrist, these facts concern us greatly, and they should disturb many other Americans, as well.

On Veterans Day, we honor those who bravely served their country and offer our helping hand to assist those who have returned from war with wounds and physical disabilities. Countless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine. They deserve our thanks. But some are left behind.

Our hospitals and therapists have performed wonders in assisting wounded veterans who lost limbs. A prosthetic is not the same as the original, but with the courage of service-members, combined with an understanding and supportive community, we are making progress. We wish the same could be said for our veterans who come back with deep brain and mental wounds. Their requests for understanding and compassion are too often dismissed.

A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center is a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on. Even as the use of capital punishment is declining, veterans suffering with PTSD and other service-related problems languish on death rows across the country.

Brannan was executed in Georgia this year for one irrational act of violence that occurred 17 years ago. He killed a police officer who had stopped him for speeding. That is a terrible crime, but as the Veterans Administration had determined, Brannan was mentally disabled with deep scars from his combat in Vietnam.

James Davis is also a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. He belatedly received his Purple Heart medal on death row in North Carolina, thanks to the work of a fellow veteran and therapist and a pastor, Jim Johnson, who visited Davis. When Johnson pinned the medal on him, Davis saluted proudly, before retreating back into the darkness of his mental problems. He could still be executed today for the murders he committed in 1995, and he has all but given up his appeals.

John Thuesen is on death row in Texas — a veteran of the Iraq conflict. His PTSD was not properly diagnosed or treated, and his lawyers did not do enough to explain his condition to the jury that convicted him of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Texas executes far more people than any other state in the country, so there is a real concern that his current appeal could be denied.

PTSD is not as obvious as a missing limb, but it can be deeply debilitating. The trauma from combat can simmer under the surface for years, then erupt in violence, often against family members. It can be triggered by anything that jars a memory of a time when a person was under violent attack, demanding immediate and forceful reaction. Years later, the previous danger is no longer present, but the memory may set off a similar reaction, with deadly consequences. PTSD can be treated, but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it.

In a criminal sentencing hearing, PTSD should be a strong mitigating factor. It’s not an excuse or a demand for acquittal. However, the very symptoms that define PTSD can be frightening to a jury if not carefully explained by a mental health expert familiar with the illness. Defense attorneys are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present this kind of evidence; prosecutors or judges might dismiss it because others with similar combat experiences did not murder anyone. Perhaps some of the blame should be more broadly shared because we sometimes choose to look away when a veteran’s scars are not the kind that we know how to cope with.

We are not arguing here about the morality or the utility of the death penalty. But at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field.

Decision-makers — jurors, judges and governors — should be informed that such information is a valid reason to spare a defendant from capital punishment. There are alternatives, such as life in prison without parole.

We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them?

Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) James P. Cullen, USA, is a former judge for the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) David R. Irvine, USA, is a former Deputy Commander of the 96th U.S. Army Reserve Command. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Stephen N. Xenakis, USA, M.D. is an adjunct clinical professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

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