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Battle Scars - Military Veterans and Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, 2015

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The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public
with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center provides indepth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to
those working on this issue. The Center is funded through the generosity of individual donors and
foundations, including the Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the
Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Proteus Action League.

Battle Scars:
Military Veterans and
the Death Penalty
A Report by
the Death Penalty Information Center

DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER
Washington, D.C.

www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

Battle Scars:
Military Veterans and the Death Penalty
A Death Penalty Information Center Report
by Richard C. Dieter

Washington, D.C.
Veterans Day 2015

www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

Battle Scars, p.2

Battle Scars:
Military Veterans and the Death Penalty
Executive Summary
In many respects, veterans in the United States are again receiving the respect
and gratitude they deserve for having risked their lives and served their country.
Wounded soldiers are welcomed home, and their courage in starting a new and difficult
journey in civilian life is rightly applauded. But some veterans with debilitating scars
from their time in combat have received a very different reception. They have been
judged to be the "worst of the worst" criminals, deprived of mercy, sentenced to death,
and executed by the government they served.
Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who have committed
heinous crimes present hard cases for our system of justice. The violence that
occasionally erupts into murder can easily overcome the special respect that is afforded
most veterans. However, looking away and ignoring this issue serves neither veterans
nor victims.
PTSD has affected an enormous number of veterans returning from combat
zones. Over 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. At least 175,000 veterans of
Operation Desert Storm were affected by "Gulf War Illness," which has been linked to
brain cancer and other mental deficits. Over 300,000 veterans from the Afghanistan and
Iraq conflicts have PTSD. In one study, only about half had received treatment in the
prior year.
Even with these mental wounds and lifetime disabilities, the overwhelming
majority of veterans do not commit violent crime. Many have been helped, and PTSD is
now formally recognized in the medical community as a serious illness. But for those
who have crossed an indefinable line and have been charged with capital murder,
compassion and understanding seem to disappear. Although a definitive count has yet
to be made, approximately 300 veterans are on death row today, and many others have
already been executed.
Perhaps even more surprising, when many of these veterans faced death penalty
trials, their service and related illnesses were barely touched on as their lives were being
weighed by judges and juries. Defense attorneys failed to investigate this critical area of
mitigation; prosecutors dismissed, or even belittled, their claims of mental trauma from
the war; judges discounted such evidence on appeal; and governors passed on their
opportunity to bestow the country's mercy. In older cases, some of that dismissiveness
might be attributed to ignorance about PTSD and related problems. But many of those
death sentences still stand today when the country knows better.
Unfortunately, the plight of veterans facing execution is not of another era. The
first person executed in 2015, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated Vietnam veteran with
a diagnosis of PTSD and other forms of mental illness. Despite being given 100% mental

The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public
with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center provides indepth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to
those working on this issue. The Center is funded through the generosity of individual donors and
foundations, including the Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the
Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Proteus Action League.

Battle Scars:
Military Veterans and
the Death Penalty
A Report by
the Death Penalty Information Center

DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER
Washington, D.C.

www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

Battle Scars, p.3

disability by the Veterans Administration after returning from the war, Georgia sought
and won a death sentence because he bizarrely killed a police officer after a traffic stop.
The Pardons Board refused him clemency. Others, like Courtney Lockhart in Alabama,
returned more recently with PTSD from service in Iraq. He was sentenced to death by a
judge, even though the jury recommended life. The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a
request to review his case this year.
This report is not a definitive study of all the veterans who have been sentenced
to death in the modern era of capital punishment. Rather, it is a wake-up call to the
justice system and the public at large: As the death penalty is being questioned in many
areas, it should certainly be more closely scrutinized when used against veterans with
PTSD and other mental disabilities stemming from their service. Recognizing the
difficult challenges many veterans face after their service should warrant a close
examination of the punishment of death for those wounded warriors who have
committed capital crimes. Moreover, a better understanding of the disabilities some
veterans face could lead to a broader conversation about the wide use of the death
penalty for others suffering from severe mental illness.

Battle Scars, p.4

I. Introduction

Our Nation has a long tradition of
according leniency to veterans in recognition of
their service, especially for those who fought on the
front lines as Porter did.
-Porter v. McCollum, U.S. Supreme Court

(2009)

In many sectors of society, U.S. military veterans are finally
receiving the respect and assistance they earned by their years of
service to the country. Almost every professional sports event
begins with a tribute to those currently or formerly in the military.
The national and local media frequently highlight the struggles and
courageous rehabilitation efforts of veterans from recent conflicts
who have come back disfigured or missing a limb.
However, another group of veterans has returned from
combat zones with other kinds of wounds. Hundreds of thousands
of these veterans are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,
from addictions related to physical injuries, or from other
disabilities that cannot be helped with a prosthetic. Some of these
veterans had mental problems before joining the military, but their
condition became worse during their service, as they endured lifethreatening experiences. A few of these returning soldiers have
committed heinous crimes, causing some public officials to
abandon their special respect for veterans and allow the imposition
of the nation’s worst punishment: the death penalty.
The precise number of veterans who have been sentenced to
death is unknown. Estimates from a variety of sources indicate that
at least 10% of the current death row–that is, over 300 inmates—are
military veterans. Many others have already been executed.
There are two reasons to reconsider imposing a punishment
on veterans that is supposed to be reserved for the very worst
offenders: First, veterans have made a vital contribution to the
safety of our country. Second, many have experienced trauma that
few others in society have ever encountered—trauma that may
have played a role in their committing serious crimes. These
considerations do not justify ignoring offenses committed by
veterans, but should challenge the practice of sentencing veterans—

Battle Scars, p.5

particularly those with disabilities—to the traumatic conditions of
death row followed by execution at the hands of the government
they had served.
The use of the death penalty in America has shrunk
substantially over the past 15 years. Death sentences in leading
capital punishment states like Texas and Virginia have declined by
over 80%. Executions will likely decrease in 2015, and last year’s
total was already a 20-year low.1
With capital punishment in decline, and with a growing
understanding of the psychological trauma that can be caused by
military combat, it might be assumed that few, if any, veterans
would be facing execution today. Such is not the case. Hundreds of
veterans, including many who suffered severe trauma during their
tour of duty, languish on death row.
Item: The first person
executed in 2015 was Andrew
Brannan, a decorated combat
veteran from the Vietnam War
with no prior criminal record. He
qualified for 100% disability from
the Veterans Administration
because of his Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD) and bipolar mental illness. He was
stopped in Georgia for speeding.
After being told to get out of his
truck, he started acting bizarrely,
begging the police officer to shoot him. He then retrieved a rifle
from his truck and fired nine shots, killing a young deputy sheriff.
The defense made little mention of his military experience, and the
prosecution mocked his claim of PTSD ("everybody's got a little bit
of PTSD”), implying he was malingering.2 The Georgia Board of
Pardons and Paroles denied him clemency.3
Item: In July 2015, the California Supreme Court
unanimously upheld the death sentence of John Cunningham, also
a Vietnam combat veteran, who was seriously abused as a child. He
was convicted of killing three people at a place of work owned by
1 . See Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 2014 Year End Report (2014),
available at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/2014YrEnd.pdf.
2 . Clemency Petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on behalf of
Andrew Brannan, at 13 (Jan. 7, 2015) (on file with DPIC); picture of Lt. Brannan
in Vietnam from Petition for Habeas Corpus, Sup. Ct. of Butts Cty. GA (Jan. 12,
2015) (on file with DPIC).
3 . T. Barnes, “A Vietnam Veteran With PTSD Is The First Us Execution Of 2015,”
The Intercept, Jan. 14, 2015.

Battle Scars, p.6

his previous employer. He confessed to the crime, making
references to dreams and experiences in Vietnam and expressing
relief at being caught. He put on no defense at his trial. Extensive
evidence of his PTSD was presented at his sentencing phase, but
the prosecution countered by noting that other veterans with
similar experiences had not committed felonies. He remains on
death row.4
Item: Courtney Lockhart from
Alabama spent 16 months in Ramadi, Iraq, a
region known as the deadliest part of the
country. Sixty-four members of his brigade
died while in Iraq. Of those who survived,
many suffered from PTSD, including
Lockhart. At least 12 soldiers from the
brigade have been arrested for murder or
attempted murder. Unfortunately, his trial
attorneys did little to investigate or portray
this military background.5 Lockhart was convicted of murdering a
young student at Auburn University. He confessed to killing the
victim, but said it was an accident. The jury unanimously voted
against a death sentence, recommending life in prison instead.
However, Alabama is one of a very few states that allows the judge
to override the jury, and Lockhart was sentenced to death by the
presiding judge. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court considered taking
his case for review—probably on the issue of judges overriding jury
recommendations for life—but ultimately denied Lockhart’s
petition. He remains on death row.6
The death penalty in the U.S. has been significantly
restricted by the Supreme Court in recent decades. By interpreting
the country’s standards of decency as evidenced through
legislation and jury decisions, the Court has limited the death
penalty to first-degree murder and has exempted juvenile
offenders, the intellectually disabled, and the insane. However, that
leaves a broad swath of offenders with severe mental illness
vulnerable to an unpredictable sentencing process that tries to
strike an impossible balance between horrendous crimes and the
effects of mental illness on human behavior. The facts of the crimes
presented can often block out consideration of a sentence less than
death. Veterans with PTSD and other mental problems related to
4 . “S.C. Upholds Death Sentence for Veteran Who Claimed PTSD,” Metropolitan
News Company, July 6, 2015.
5 . See Rule 32 Petition, Lockhart v. Alabama, No. CC-2008-000197.60 (Cir. Ct. of
Lee Cty. Sept. 18, 2015) (on file with DPIC).
6 . R. Buckwalter-Poza, “With Judges Overriding Death Penalty Cases, Alabama
Is An Outlier,” NPR.org, July 27, 2014; K. Falk, “U.S. Supreme Court refuses to
hear death row inmates' appeals in Auburn and Franklin County cases,” Al.com,
April 20, 2015.

Battle Scars, p.7

their military service are among those left exposed.
Indeed, such mental health issues—although properly to be
considered only as factors against the death penalty—are sometimes
considered as reasons to impose the death penalty, and thus are
often not presented to the jury by defense counsel. In 2009 in its
review of the case of George Porter, a Korean War veteran with
PTSD, the Supreme Court noted: “The judge and jury at Porter’s
original sentencing heard almost nothing that would humanize
Porter or allow them to accurately gauge his moral culpability.”7 A
reconsideration of the death penalty for the severely mentally ill8
could begin with a special examination of the death penalty
imposed on U.S. veterans.

7 . Porter v. McCollum, 130 S.Ct. 447, 454 (2009) (per curiam). In a more recent
federal death penalty case, the prosecutors cited the defendant’s military service
as an additional reason why he should be sentenced to death: “[T]here is one
mitigating factor that says the defendant served in the United States Army, and
he was honorably discharged. Well, that doesn’t mitigate against the imposition
of the death penalty, ladies and gentlemen. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is the
training that he received in the military, in these other jobs that he has had, that
allowed him to commit this crime.” Defendant’s Brief, U.S. v. David Anthony
Runyon, No. 09-11 (4th Cir. Feb. 29, 2012) (available from DPIC) (Runyon remains
on the federal death row).
8 . The American Bar Association has called for an exemption from the death
penalty for defendants with severe mental illness. See
http://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/projects/death_penalty_due_proces
s_review_project/serious-mental-illness-initiative-.html.

Battle Scars, p.8

II. Scope of the Problem

A large majority of Vietnam Veterans
struggled with chronic PTSD symptoms, with four
out of five reporting recent symptoms when
interviewed 20-25 years after Vietnam.
-National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study

A. Veterans Sentenced to Death
Thousands of people have been sentenced to death in the
modern era of the death penalty, but states do not uniformly
include military status among the information on death row
inmates.9 The military also does not have a count of the number of
veterans on death row or the number executed.
Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the
existing death penalty in 1972,10 states began passing new capital
punishment laws and sentencing individuals to death under those
laws. This coincided with the post-Vietnam era, when many
soldiers returned to their communities disillusioned, disrespected,
and traumatized by their experience. As this report shows, many
veterans ended up in prison and some were sent to death row and
were executed. Following the Vietnam era, veterans constituted
about 20% of the prison population.11 Although many of the
Vietnam veterans who went to prison were eventually released,
those sentenced to death may have now been executed and many
remain on death row.
A more recent count of veterans in prison was published in
2007 and found that about 10% of state prisoners were veterans.12
Although that was a decline from the Vietnam era, it did not
include the likely upsurge due to the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq.13
9 . See, e.g., Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, Offenders on Death Row, available at
<https://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_offenders_on_dr.html>, with
information on each inmate (no veteran status).
10 . See Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
11 . C. Mumola, & M. Noonan, “Veterans in State and Federal Prison, 2004,”
Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Justice, April 29, 2007.
12 . Id. at 1.
13 . Id. Only 3.7% of the imprisoned veterans in this 2004 study were from the
Afghan and Iraq conflicts that have dominated the most recent decade.

Battle Scars, p.9

The percentage of prisoners who are veterans—10%—can
serve as an approximation of the percentage of those on death row
who are veterans. In fact, among those in prison, veterans were
more likely to be there for homicide than non-veterans, and
homicide is the crime for which defendants can receive the death
penalty.14
Further evidence supporting an estimate of 10% for the
number of death row inmates who are veterans was obtained by
contacting litigators in large death penalty states. Responses from
states that represent about half of the entire death row in the U.S.
indicate that about 11% of the inmates are veterans.15 (Even that
figure may be low because litigators can only report on clients they
know to be veterans. Defendants who withhold that information or
where veteran status has never been investigated would be left out
of this count.)
Thus, hundreds of veterans have likely been sentenced to
death in the modern era of the death penalty, and approximately
300 remain on death row. This is a much larger cohort of
14 . For those imprisoned for homicide, veterans represented a higher proportion
of the population (15%) than the proportion of non-veterans in prison for
homicide (12%). Id. at Appendix table 4. The BJS report went further and
determined that 13.2% of the veterans in state prison in 2004 were either serving
life or were on death row. (Appendix table 8). That represents approximately
16,400 veterans.
15 . Data on death row were reported to DPIC from California, Arizona, Florida,
Nevada, and North Carolina. These states represent 1,506 of the 3,002 inmates on
death row in 2015.

Battle Scars, p.10

defendants than those implicated in the Supreme Court’s decisions
to exempt juveniles, the intellectually disabled, and the insane from
the death penalty.
The number of veterans on death row is only part of the
concern. Being a veteran in times of war exposes individuals to
another world that is alien to the common experience. Young
military recruits go from their adolescent lives to places where
death is a daily and extremely brutal occurrence. Enemies are
blown up before their eyes, sometimes at the young recruits’ own
hands. Their friends and fellow service members are killed and
maimed in numbers hardly anyone outside of a combat zone has
witnessed—often leaving veterans feeling guilty about having
survived.
Item: One soldier described a few hours of this experience
during the Iraq conflict:
First there’s a blinding flash, then a deafening sound
as my Humvee lurches into the air. My heart jumps to
my throat, and in that split-second I know: A
roadside bomb. A pressure-plated IED that,
somehow, four vehicles passed without detonating.
Vehicle Five, about 15 feet behind us, is hit hard, its
entire front end gone.
I scramble out of my Humvee, and enter a nightmare.
Gunny, our platoon sergeant, lies in a crater the size
of a Volkswagen, his legs blown apart.
Flesh and blood are scattered across the road and
paint the inside of the wrecked vehicle. Dazed
Marines stumble through the smoke and dust, unsure
if they’re hit. Doc, our corpsman, is tying tourniquets
to Gunny’s mangled legs as the ground around them
turns darker. I run my team’s trauma pack to Doc and
hear Gunny, his face twisted in unimaginable pain,
ask Doc to kill him.
In a rational world, there would be shock and
emotion. I am staring at a man near death, the
corpsman who tends him kneels on a gruesome
composite of turned earth and flesh. No mind should
take in such horror. But in war, cruelty is

Battle Scars, p.11

commonplace. So there is calmness in our
movements. We have to focus on staying alive.16
Such violence can leave a permanent residue of shock and
disconnect from daily life back in the states. Most people who have
served in combat areas thankfully return to their civilian lives and
carry on without killing anybody or committing other violent
crime. In many ways, they are the lucky ones. But the
overwhelming conclusion of years of medical and psychological
research on veterans is now clear: PTSD is a real mental illness; it is
common among those who have served in war zones; it can result
in violent outbreaks in otherwise nonviolent individuals; and it can
simmer for years before it manifests itself in unpredictable ways.

B. Prevalence of PTSD and Other Disorders
There was a strong reported relation
between combat experiences, such as being shot at,
handling dead bodies, knowing someone who was
killed, or killing enemy combatants, and the
prevalence of PTSD.
-New England Journal of Medicine (2004)

The fact that hundreds of thousands of veterans have PTSD
and other debilitating disorders,17 such as depression, anxiety, and
alcohol abuse, represents a major challenge, not only for returning
veterans, but also for the families and communities in which they
will live. The effects of PTSD remain for years, and sometimes
decades, after the soldier returns home. The National Alliance on
Mental Illness provides a description of the disorder in plain terms:
Traumatic events, such as military combat,
assault, an accident or a natural disaster, can have
long-lasting negative effects. Sometimes our
biological responses and instincts, which can be lifesaving during a crisis, leave people with ongoing
psychological symptoms because they are not
integrated into consciousness.
Because the body is busy increasing the heart
rate, pumping blood to muscles for movement and
16 . C. Clark, “Nightmare at a Bend in the Road,” New America Media, Feb. 6,
2010, available at <http://newamericamedia.org/2010/02/nightmare-at-a-bendin-the-road.php>.
17 . See studies cited in this section.

Battle Scars, p.12

preparing the body to fight off infection and bleeding
in case of a wound, all bodily resources and energy
get focused on physically getting out of harm’s way.
This resulting damage to the brain’s response system
is called posttraumatic stress response or disorder,
also known as PTSD.
…
The symptoms of PTSD fall into the following
categories.
•
•

•
•

Intrusive Memories, which can include flashbacks
of reliving the moment of trauma, bad dreams and
scary thoughts.
Avoidance, which can include staying away from
certain places or objects that are reminders of the
traumatic event. A person may also feel numb,
guilty, worried or depressed or having trouble
remembering the traumatic event.
Dissociation, which can include out-of-body
experiences or feeling that the world is "not real"
(derealization).
Hypervigilance, which can include being startled
very easily, feeling tense, trouble sleeping or
outbursts of anger.18

Item: One of the most comprehensive studies of PTSD in
combat veterans was conducted after the Vietnam War. The
Congressionally mandated National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment
Study (NVVRS) found that the majority of veterans readjusted
successfully to civilian life. However, a substantial minority of
those who had served in Vietnam was experiencing psychological
problems. Over 800,000 vets had symptoms and impairment
related to PTSD. Disturbingly, 15% of male veterans still suffered
from severe PTSD more than 10 years after the war ended.
Other results from this study included:
Rates of PTSD were consistently higher for Vietnam
theater Veterans than for [other] Vietnam era
Veterans and civilians. … Overall, the NVVRS found
that at the time of the study approximately 830,000
male and female Vietnam theater Veterans (26%) had

18 . National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,”
available at <https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-HealthConditions/Posttraumatic-Stress-Disorder>, visited Sept. 3, 2015.

Battle Scars, p.13

symptoms and related functional impairment
associated with PTSD. …
[A] large majority of Vietnam Veterans struggled with
chronic PTSD symptoms, with four out of five
reporting recent symptoms when interviewed 20-25
years after Vietnam.19
Item: During the Gulf War (1990-91), returning veterans not
only experienced PTSD from combat, but also many were exposed
to dangerous chemicals with long-term physical and mental effects
known as “Gulf War Illness.” A Congressionally mandated study
of this phenomenon was released in 2008 and updated in 2014,
concluding that the illness was quite real, extensive among veterans
who had served, and devastating in its symptoms, which included
“memory problems” and “psychological problems.” Among the
conclusions of the latter report were:
Studies reviewed in this report show that Gulf War
veterans who were most exposed to the release of
nerve gas by the destruction of the Khamisiyah Iraqi
arms depot have significantly elevated rates of death
due to brain cancer. Veterans who were exposed to
the highest level of contaminants from oil well fires
also have increased rates of brain cancer deaths.
…
Hazardous exposures in theater are also related to
certain other health problems seen in Gulf War
veterans. Exposure to the nerve gas agents sarin and
cyclosarin has been linked in two more studies to
changes in structural magnetic resonance brain
imaging that are associated with cognitive
decrements, further supporting findings on the
nervous system effects of these agents reported in the
2008 report. New evidence has emerged suggesting
that oil well fire exposures may be important in the
development of Gulf War illness and brain cancer.20

19 . J. Price, “Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans' Readjustment
Study,” U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, last updated Aug. 17, 2015, available at
http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/research-bio/research/vietnam-vetsstudy.asp (citations omitted).
20 . Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses, Gulf War
Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans: Research Update and Recommendations,
2009-2013, at 2-3, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (2014).

Battle Scars, p.14

Research on the effects of Gulf War Illness is continuing. A
recent study at the Georgetown University Medical Center
compared some of the brain damage in Gulf War veterans to that in
Alzheimer’s disease: “The use of other brain areas to compensate
for a damaged area is seen in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s
disease, which is why we believe our data show that these veterans
are suffering from central nervous system dysfunction.”21
Veterans returning from more recent conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan have a high prevalence of PTSD, especially among
those who had been in combat zones:
Item: A study of thousands of veterans before and after
deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan was published in the New
England Journal of Medicine in 2004. The study found a substantial
prevalence of PTSD among vets who had experienced extensive
combat:
Rates of PTSD were significantly higher after combat
duty in Iraq than before deployment, with similar
odds ratios for the Army and Marine samples.
Significant associations were observed for major
depression and the misuse of alcohol. Most of these
associations remained significant after control for
demographic factors .…
For all groups responding after deployment, there
was a strong reported relation between combat
experiences, such as being shot at, handling dead
bodies, knowing someone who was killed, or killing
enemy combatants, and the prevalence of PTSD.…
The rates of PTSD were significantly associated with
having been wounded or injured ….22
All war is extremely violent and has always taken a
psychological toll on those who have fought.23 The conflicts in Iraq
and Afghanistan are no exception. A study of veterans from those
conflicts found a very high exposure to just the kind of experiences
that can result in PTSD:
21 . J. Wood, “New Study Pinpoints Two Distinct Forms of Gulf War Illness”
Psych Central. (2013). Retrieved on October 22, 2015, from
http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/06/15/new-study-pinpoints-two-distinctforms-of-gulf-war-illness/56066.html.
22 . C. Hoge et al., Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems,
and Barriers to Care, 351 N. Engl. J. Med. 13-22 (2004).
23 . See J. London, Why Are We Killing Veterans? The Repugnance And Incongruity
Of The U.S. Government Executing Psychologically Wounded Veterans, 11 U. St.
Thomas L.J. 274, 276-77 (2014)

Battle Scars, p.15

o 88.5% of the veterans witnessed dead bodies or
human remains !
o 83.8% witnessed the death or serious injury of an
American soldier !
o 40.2% were themselves injured or wounded in
combat !
o 31.2% directly caused the death of an enemy
combatant !
o 21.4% participated in handling or uncovering human
remains
o 20.9% directly caused the death of a civilian !
o 12.8% were directly responsible for the death of a
child.24

A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that
about 300,000 (18%) of the 1.64 million military members deployed
to Iraq and Afghanistan had PTSD. Among veterans diagnosed
with PTSD or major depression, only about half had received
treatment in the previous 12 months.25

24 . W. Brown, “Spinning the Bottle: A Comparative Analysis of VeteranDefendants and Veterans Not Entangled in Criminal Justice,” in The Attorney’s
Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court 128-30 (B. Hunter and R. Else eds.
2014).!
25 . RAND Corporation, “Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and Cognitive Care
Needs of America’s Returning Veterans,” at 2-3 (2008).

Battle Scars, p.16

The outbreak of violence in the lives of veterans can be hard
for an overwhelmingly non-veteran public to understand. The
victims are often loved ones and even fellow soldiers. Researchers
at the New York Times noted a significant uptick in violence among
veterans once they began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The
Times found an 89% increase in homicides among active-duty
military personnel and new veterans compared to the six years
before the invasion of Afghanistan. The study reviewed 121 cases
in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed or were
charged with murder after their return from war. Among the
findings:
Three-quarters of these veterans were still in
the military at the time of the killing. More than half
the killings involved guns, and the rest were
stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub
drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder,
manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car
crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal
driving.
About a third of the victims were spouses,
girlfriends, children or other relatives ….
A quarter of the victims were fellow service
members, including Specialist Richard Davis of the
Army, who was stabbed repeatedly and then set
ablaze, his body hidden in the woods by fellow
soldiers a day after they all returned from Iraq.26

26 . D. Sontag et al., “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” N.Y.
Times, Jan. 13, 2008.

Battle Scars, p.17

C. Mental Illness, PTSD, and the Death Penalty

The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran
who faces execution by the nation he has served
seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society,
should take action to ensure that it does not
happen.
-Dr. Hal Wortzel, Professor of psychiatry,
University of Colorado27

The understanding of the relation between mental problems
and wartime trauma has expanded greatly in recent years. PTSD is
now included among the mental disorders in the practitioner’s
manual of the American Psychiatric Association.28 But the
symptoms of PTSD do not always manifest themselves
immediately after a veteran returns from war.
Crimes committed by people with PTSD can appear to
spring out of nowhere. When a sound, a smell, or personal
interaction connects with a repressed memory of a terrifying
experience, the mind and body can react in violent ways—perhaps
helpful towards survival in a military theater—but inappropriate,
illegal, and extremely dangerous in a civilian setting. To an
ordinary observer not familiar with PTSD, a sudden reaction to a
seemingly minor disturbance is very frightening.
Many of the crimes committed by former soldiers with PTSD
were directed at people they had a close relationship with. In the
New York Times study cited above, one-third of the homicide
victims killed by those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were
family members or girlfriends. Another one-quarter were fellow
service members.29 The violence is erratic, generally not triggered
by any real threat from the victim. When it is over, there is often
deep remorse, admission of guilt, and the danger of suicide.
If the death penalty is sought and mental problems are
introduced at the trial, this forces the decision-makers at sentencing
to weigh two strongly competing factors—the heinousness of the
27 . Dr. Hal Wortzel and Dr. David B. Arciniegas, Combat Veterans and the Death
Penalty: A Forensic Neuropsychiatric Perspective, 38 Journal of the American
Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 407-14 (2010) (Conclusion).
28 . American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition 271-72 (2013) (DSM-5).
29 . See Sontag, note 26 above.

Battle Scars, p.18

crime versus the influence of mental illness on the actions of the
defendant—and then to choose between two hugely disparate
outcomes: life or death. There is no formula for such choices;
neither psychiatrists nor judges are prepared for such a decision,
much less ordinary jurors.
If a veteran’s PTSD was preceded by other forms of mental
illness, childhood abuse, or other disabilities, the problems for the
justice system are compounded.
Item: Scott Panetti had
been in the Navy before his
downward spiral into mental
illness led him to shave his
head, put on combat fatigues,
and kill his in-laws in Texas in
1992. Prior to the murder, he
was treated and often given
medications at mental hospitals,
30
including VA facilities in Texas. At his death penalty trial he
called himself “sarge” and was allowed to defend himself dressed
in an old-time cowboy suit. During the trial, he told irrelevant
stories from his time in the Navy and subpoenaed Jesus Christ as a
witness. Despite a farcical legal process, he was convicted,
sentenced to death, and remains on death row today. He was in the
care of the VA after his service and perhaps more could have been
done by officials to treat Panetti earlier, to dissuade the court from
allowing him to represent himself in a capital trial, or to convince
the state that he should be spared execution.
Panetti’s case stands today at the forefront of the debate
about executing people with severe mental illness. The Supreme
Court has barred the execution of the insane, but was vague about
the definition of insanity.31 Texas insists that Panetti has some
understanding of the fact that he is being punished for his crime
and hence is not insane. The U.S. Supreme Court sent Panetti’s case
back to Texas to reconsider his mental competency in light of his
history of mental illness,32 but has not said that the severely
mentally ill should be exempt from the death penalty.

30 . J. Silver, “Panetti Case Argued Again Before 5th Circuit,” Texas Tribune,
Sept. 23, 2015.
31 . See Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 421-22 (1986) (Powell, J., concurring in
part).
32 . Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007); see also Silver, note 30 above
(recent 5th Cir. review).

Battle Scars, p.19

III. Areas of Concern in Capital Cases
All of the veterans who have faced the death penalty since
1973 fall into three categories: Some have already been executed;
some are still on death row or had their death sentence reduced;
and some have not yet been sentenced to death.
There are lessons to be learned from cases in each category
that could prevent injustices in the treatment of veterans facing
capital prosecution. For veterans on death row or facing trial,
intervention may save their lives. As a start, all persons on death
row who are veterans should be identified. Where appropriate,
information about PTSD and other debilitating problems related to
military service could be shared with prosecutors, defense
attorneys, courts, governors, and legislators, with an emphasis on
the mitigating value of such information.

A. Veterans Already Executed
Over 1,400 people have been executed in the U.S. since the
death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Many of them were veterans.
Some received significant media attention as protests arose close to
their execution, but in other cases the military service of the inmate,
along with any debilitating effects, may never have been raised.
Identifying all the executions of veterans and finding out whether
PTSD existed and whether it was raised in legal proceedings would
be very instructive in addressing such cases in the future.
In the post-Vietnam era, there was significant resistance to
recognizing PTSD as a legitimate mental illness and as a critical
mitigating factor in capital sentencing.33 The Vietnam War was
very unpopular and returning vets bore the brunt of disrespect for
the military generally, which overflowed into disrespect even
towards individual soldiers. This may not have been a majority
view, but the difference between the outward deference and
respect for returning soldiers now, compared to the early 1970s, is
quite stark.
Returning vets not only received little support, but they also
found themselves in the midst of a conservative backlash against
the rising crime rates that accompanied the late- and post-Vietnam
eras. President Richard Nixon strongly supported the death penalty
in his re-election bid in 1972, and a crackdown on crime and drugs
was a typical part of political campaigns. By 1976, 35 states had
quickly passed new death penalty statutes in response to a U.S.

33 . See London, note 23 above, at 277 (PTSD not formally recognized until 1980).

Battle Scars, p.20

Supreme Court ruling that temporarily halted executions.34 The
confluence of those societal pressures was apparent in the
California case of Manuel Babbitt.

Manny Babbitt
The cops promised me they would give him the
help he needed.

-Bill Babbitt, after turning in his mentally ill
brother, who was executed in 1999
Over the course of 40 years in the
modern era of the death penalty, California
has executed 13 inmates, while over 750
remain on death row. Manny Babbitt was
hardly the “worst of the worst” of criminal
defendants in the state during that time.
After being released from a mental
institution, Manny lived with his brother,
Bill. He had been suffering from PTSD ever
since he returned from Vietnam in 1969.
During the 77-day siege at Khe Sanh, he
had picked up pieces of the bodies of his fellow soldiers. When he
was wounded, he was evacuated in a helicopter on a pile of dead
bodies.
In 1980, he broke into the home of an elderly woman and
beat her. She died of a heart attack. After Bill read about the case in
the newspaper, he found a cigarette lighter and some money that
Manny newly possessed. He decided to turn Manny over to
authorities, expecting his war-hero brother to receive the medical
attention he needed. Manny did not deny his role in the murder,
but said he did not remember it. Manny, who was black, was tried
by an all-white jury, sentenced to death, and executed in the gas
chamber in 1999, shortly after receiving the Purple Heart in
prison.35 He was the first black person executed in California in the
modern era.36
In an interview for the New York Times Magazine after the
execution, Bill described the changes that had come over his
brother after he left the mental institution and moved in with Bill‘s
family:
34 . See Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).
35 . "Should Manny Babbitt Die?" SF Gate, April 5, 1999.!
36 . J. Doyle et al., “Vietnam Vet Babbitt Executed,” SF Gate, May 4, 1999.

Battle Scars, p.21

We gave him money and tried to help him get
work. But when I let him go out on his own, he acted
strange. I didn't want to use the word "crazy." But he
was bathing less, and his dress was bizarre. I was
worried. I had let Manny get away from me and
spend too much time by himself. His demons started
coming to the surface.
Bill described the guilt he felt in surrendering his brother to
the police as a suspect in a murder:
I felt guilty, and ashamed of him. On his last
day of freedom, I betrayed him. It was terrible. But I
felt I had to do what I did. During his interrogation,
an officer told Manny, "You're not going to go to the
gas chamber or anything like that." The cops
promised me they would give him the help he
needed.37
Manny declined his final meal and requested that the $50
allotted be given to homeless Vietnam veterans.38 Although little
was made of his PTSD at his 1982 trial, his appellate lawyers raised
the issue repeatedly. Ultimately, Gov. Gray Davis, himself a
Vietnam vet, declined clemency, saying:
Countless people have suffered the ravages of
war, persecution, starvation, natural disasters,
personal calamities and the like. But such experiences
cannot justify or mitigate the savage beating and
killing of defenseless, law-abiding citizens.39
The governor mistakenly equated the physical suffering
from natural calamities with the mental scars of combat soldiers,
and failed to distinguish between crimes that cannot be mitigated
and the mentally ill criminal, whose responsibility was diminished
by such trauma.

37 . B. Babbitt, “My Brother's Guilt Became My Own,” N.Y. Times Magazine, Jan.
14, 2001 (as told to Gabrielle Banks) (picture of M. Babbitt with permission of
family).
38 . See Doyle, note 36 above.
39 . Id.

Battle Scars, p.22

Louis Jones, Jr.
By 2003, the country had learned more
about PTSD and other military-related illnesses,
and the attitude towards those who had served
their country in the military had changed
considerably.40 Therefore, it might seem
surprising that Louis Jones, a decorated Gulf War
veteran with no prior criminal record, was executed that year by
the federal government, despite clear signs of mental illness
following his service in the war.
As with many crimes committed by those with PTSD, the
series of events surrounding Jones’s offense made little sense. In
1995, he entered Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, where he was
a civilian employee, and where his ex-wife worked. He kidnapped
a total stranger, Pvt. Tracie McBride. He brought her to his
apartment, raped her, and then brought her to a bridge where he
killed her with a tire iron. Jones confessed to the crime and led
police to the body. His ex-wife testified at Jones’s trial that he had
assaulted her at his apartment 2 days before he kidnapped
McBride. She said he was acting "very crazed," "panicked," and was
"spinning out of control."41
His attorneys claimed that his exposure to nerve gas in Iraq
and post-traumatic stress from his combat tours contributed to his
murder of McBride. At his trial, at least some jurors found the
existence of important mitigating factors in Jones’s favor but
nevertheless unanimously sentenced him to death. A single juror
voting for a life sentence would have meant no death penalty.
Some of the jurors found:
o Jones committed the offense under severe mental or
emotional disturbance
o He was subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional
abuse as a child and was deprived of sufficient
parental protection that he needed
o He served his country well in Desert Storm, Grenada,
and for 22 years in the United States Army
o He is likely to be a well-behaved inmate
o He is remorseful for the crime he committed
40 . See, e.g., A. Giardino, “Combat Veterans, Mental Health Issues, and the Death
Penalty: Addressing the Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic
Brain Injury,” 77 Fordham Law Rev. 2955, 2989-91 (2009) (citing changes in
contemporary attitudes).
41 . R. Serrano, “A War Hero, a Condemned Killer,” Los Angeles Times, January
14, 2003.

Battle Scars, p.23

o He suffered from numerous neurological or
psychological disorders at the time of the offense.42
In 2000, while Jones was on death row, the Pentagon sent
him a letter revealing that he had been exposed to chemical agents
when the Army demolished a munitions plant in Khamisiyah,
Iraq.43 During Operation Desert Storm, Jones drove through
burning oil fields in an area permeated with land mines.44
Nevertheless, Jones was executed on March 18, 2003, at the
Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. President George W.
Bush refused Jones's clemency request, while at the same time
preparing the country for the start of the Iraq War. Assistant U.S.
Attorney Tanya Pierce, who prosecuted Jones, discounted his plea
for mercy, asserting that if some soldiers had been able to integrate
back into civilian life after the Gulf War, so should all of them: "It is
an insult to the thousands and thousands of people who went over
there and did their patriotic duty, came back and are law-abiding
citizens."45 Jones was barred from burial in a military cemetery.

John Allen Muhammad
In capital cases, the facts of the crime are often so disturbing
and frightening that jurors may have difficulty hearing important
mitigating evidence put forward by the defendant. This was likely
the case after John Allen Muhammad was convicted of being one of
the two “Beltway Snipers,” responsible for 10 deaths in the
Washington, D.C., area in 2002. Virginia’s governor, Tim Kaine,
who had experience as a capital defense attorney, denied
Muhammad clemency, resulting in his execution in 2009.
Muhammad’s case was not helped by the fact that he was allowed
to initially defend himself and that he made delusional claims of
innocence.
Like Louis Jones, Muhammad was a Gulf War combat
veteran. He, too, had been stationed in Khamisiyah, Iraq, where the
destruction of a huge arms depot exposed thousands to poisonous
chemicals. He served many years in the military, including three
months as part of Operation Desert Storm, for which he received a
Kuwait Liberation Medal. He was honorably discharged in 1994.46
42 . Jones v. United States, 527 U.S. 373 (1999), at footnote 4 (aff’g lower court’s
denial of relief on grounds unrelated to military service).
43 . S. Tan, "A Hymn on His Lips, Veteran is Executed; Gulf soldier ignores his
victim's relatives as they watch him die," Indianapolis Star, March 19, 2003.
44 . "Gulf War Veteran is Executed," Indianapolis Star, March 18, 2003.
45 . S. Tan, note 43 above.
46 . “John Allen Muhammad: How decorated Gulf War veteran became subject
of manhunt,” Seattle Times (staff reporters), Oct. 25, 2002.

Battle Scars, p.24

Muhammad’s ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, described John
as a changed man after his return from Saudi Arabia. "Before going
to Saudi he was the life of the party," she said. "Everyone wanted to
be around him. He came back confused, moody … and was
diagnosed with PTSD. He was a proud man -- not one to say, 'I
need help.'"47
By the time of his trial, he certainly needed help. Some of his
mental problems were summed up by his attorneys in a final
petition to the U.S. Supreme Court prior to his execution. Evidence
offered included:
•

•
•
•

A psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, found Muhammad
lacked rational understanding and was incompetent to
represent himself
A neurologist, Dr. Jonathan Pincus, found three serious
abnormalities in his MRI brain scan, perhaps due in part to
severe physical abuse suffered as a child
Muhammad repeatedly made delusional statements,
including his claim to being present at the falling of the
Berlin Wall, and believing he “might be on another planet.”
He was convinced he was a prophet and that his codefendant, John Malvo, had concocted a cure for AIDS.48

Whether Muhammad’s mental problems were pre-existing,
caused by childhood abuse, exacerbated during his military service,
or some combination of these factors is impossible to know at this
point. In any case, mental illness is not a bar to the death penalty. It
is supposed to act as a mitigating factor in the jury’s deliberations,
but a defendant would have to be insane to be completely exempt
from the death penalty.49 Muhammad was executed on the eve of
Veterans’ Day in 2009.

47 . M. Norris, “Ex-wife of D.C. sniper speaks out on domestic violence,”
www.army.mil, Oct. 12, 2012.
48 . Muhammad v. Kelly, cert. pet. to U.S. Supreme Court (2009), at pp.4-7 (on
file with DPIC).
49 . Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986).

Battle Scars, p.25

Andrew Brannan
I am proud to have been able to walk point
for my comrades, and pray that the same thing
does not happen to any of them.

-Andrew Brannan, Vietnam Vet, before his
execution in 2015, on raising the public awareness of
PTSD
Andrew Brannan’s case was mentioned in this report’s
Introduction as evidence that the crisis of veterans on death row has
not been resolved by passage of time. Brannan was the first person
executed in 2015, and his case fits the characteristics of many other
veterans who have been sentenced to death: evidence of mental
illness, probably caused by or exacerbated by PTSD or other
military-related trauma; a bizarre and horrendous crime, followed
by the vet’s fatalistic admittance of what he did; and finally, a harsh
denial of mercy, despite the mitigating evidence of military service
and the toll that it might have taken.
Brannan had taken to living in a squalid shack in the woods
before his crime. Taylor Barnes, a freelance journalist in Georgia,
summarized Brannan’s downward spiral of mental illness:
Brannan volunteered for the Army in 1968 and was
trained as a parachutist. He served in Vietnam from
1970 to 71, and saw extensive combat. Twice he took
charge of his unit after his commanding officers were
killed. He would later recount to his psychiatrist
several situations of how he narrowly escaped death
during the war.!
!
Brannan was honorably discharged in 1971. He
received the Bronze Star and two Army
Commendation medals for his service.!
!
But as he returned to civilian life, deep psychological
and personal problems emerged in Brannan’s life. His
lawyer said he could not hold down a job and his
marriage fell apart. One of Brannan’s brothers was
killed in active duty and another committed suicide.
In 1984, he was granted partial disability for serviceconnected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By
1991, the Department of Veterans Affairs determined
Brannan to be 100 percent disabled due to PTSD, a

Battle Scars, p.26

severe diagnosis that means one’s symptoms show
“total occupation and social impairment.”!
!
In 1996, his VA psychiatrist would further diagnos[e]
him as bipolar. Brannan was hospitalized at least
twice for mental illness.
…!
Brannan’s lawyer called him hours before his
execution and told him that his case had raised public
awareness about the impact of PTSD on veterans.
Brannan responded, “I am proud to have been able to
walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same
thing does not happen to any of them.”50
Brannan’s crime was irrational. He killed a police officer
who was making a routine traffic stop for speeding. After initially
exchanging pleasantries with the officer, he became hysterical,
begging the officer to shoot him. The likely explanation for such
behavior is mental illness, and in Brannan’s case, that illness was
accompanied by PTSD from his service in Vietnam. In the end,
Georgia executed a severely mentally ill inmate at age 66 for a
crime committed many years ago.

Leonel Herrera and the Possibility of Innocence
One of the risks with any use of the
death penalty is the possibility of executing an
innocent person. In the cases of veterans, if a
defendant’s primary defense is that he did not
commit the murder he was charged with, the
jury might not hear of his military service and
PTSD. One of the military veterans executed in
Texas became far better known for bringing the
issue of innocence to the Supreme Court than
for his military service.
Leonel Herrera was charged with killing a police officer.
Leonel’s primary defense was that his brother Raul, a known drug
dealer, had committed the murder, and the officer-victim was
himself involved in dealing drugs. Leonel’s case made headlines
because the U.S. Supreme Court chose it as a vehicle to consider
whether a claim of innocence arises to a federal constitutional issue
requiring additional review. Ultimately, the Court (6-3) elected not
to resolve this issue, but instead assumed it was unconstitutional to
execute someone with extraordinary evidence of innocence, but
50 . See Barnes, note 3 above.

Battle Scars, p.27

nevertheless allowed Herrera to be killed in 1993 because it did not
find his exculpatory evidence convincing enough to even merit a
hearing.51
Herrera’s hope for mercy from the Texas Board of Pardons
and Paroles or the governor rested on the doubts he had raised
about the integrity of his conviction. But he was also a decorated
Vietnam veteran, who suffered from PTSD, though his service did
not receive a lot of attention. His mother described Leonel’s early
life as one marred by extreme poverty, physical abuse, and efforts
to escape that world by joining the military. When he came back to
south Texas with his additional scars after his service, he turned to
drug use and drug trafficking, leading eventually to his arrest for
murder.52 If Herrera’s case had been diverted away from the death
penalty in the first place because of his service and symptoms of
PTSD, this would have been a very different story.
At least four other honorable veterans who faced execution
were exonerated and freed from death row. The same year that
Herrera was executed, Kirk Bloodsworth became the first death
row inmate to be freed through DNA testing. Bloodsworth had
been convicted and sentenced to death in Maryland for the assault
and murder of a nine-year-old girl. His military service in the
Marines and his honorable discharge (and clean criminal record)
were no match for the horror of the crime in the jury’s mind. People
attending his trial applauded when he was sentenced to death, not
knowing that a grievous mistake had been made.53
Charles Fain was a Vietnam veteran sentenced to death for a
crime similar to Bloodsworth’s: the assault and murder of a nineyear-old girl in Idaho. He was convicted on the basis of a jail-house
snitch and faulty hair-comparison evidence provided by the FBI.
He was exonerated by DNA testing in 2001.54
Ray Krone was an honorably discharged Air Force veteran,
who was sentenced to death in Arizona for the murder of a woman
who worked in a neighborhood bar. Because of the emergence of
DNA testing and dedicated supporters, he was exonerated in
2002.55

51 . Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993).
52 . See N. Herrera, Last Words from Death Row 197 (Nightengale Press 2007)
(author is mother of Leonel Herrera).
53 . See generally T. Junkin, Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row
Inmate Exonerated by DNA (Algonquin Books 2004).
54 . See H. Weinstein, “Condemned Man Could Go Free After DNA Testing,”
L.A. Times, Aug. 19, 2001.
55 . See generally, J. Rix, Jingle Jangle (Broken Bench Press 2007).

Battle Scars, p.28

Joe D’Ambrosio was charged with murder in Ohio four
years after his honorable discharge from the Army. Prosecutors
withheld so much information from the defense that the courts not
only overturned his conviction, but also prohibited a retrial, and he
was freed in 2012.56
These wrongful convictions demonstrate that veterans’ cases
are subject to all the vicissitudes of the capital punishment system,
including the risk of executing the innocent.

Other Executed Veterans
Many other veterans have been executed in the modern era
of the death penalty. Their cases span the various conflicts that the
U.S. was engaged in over the past decades. Many involved
defendants with PTSD that was not sufficiently raised at trial.
David Funchess was among the first veterans executed in
the modern era when he was electrocuted in Florida in 1986. He
was diagnosed with PTSD and had been wounded while serving in
Vietnam as a Marine. He had no criminal record and had
graduated in the top third of his high school class. He was drafted
in 1967 and served three months in Vietnam, receiving five
decorations, including a Purple Heart. He was wounded by a land
mine and then discharged. He was also exposed to Agent Orange,
which causes neuropsychological damage. The medication he
received for his wounds may have contributed to his eventual
heroin habit. He was convicted of killing two bar employees in
1974.57 At the time of his trial in 1975, PTSD was little understood.
Prior to his execution, his fellow Vietnam vets kept around-theclock vigil at Florida’s Vietnam War Memorial.58
Wayne Robert Felde was electrocuted in Louisiana in 1988,
after asking his trial jury to sentence him to death. He shot a
policeman while handcuffed and on his way to jail for
drunkenness. Felde had served in Vietnam and was the first person
in the state to use his Vietnam experience as the basis for an
insanity plea.59

56 . P. Krouse, "Judge bars re-prosecution of Joe D'Ambrosio, slams prosecutors,"
Plain Dealer, March 3, 2010. Michael McCormick, who was exonerated from
death row in Tennessee in 2007, may also have been a veteran.
57 . Associated Press, “Vietnam Veteran Is Put To Death In Florida,” N.Y. Times,
April 23, 1986.
58 . M. Mello, “Flashbacks, Vietnam, and Capital Punishment,” Rutland Herald,
Dec. 7, 2005.
59 . Associated Press, “A Vietnam Veteran Who Said He’d Kill Again Is
Executed,” N.Y. Times, Mar. 15, 1988.

Battle Scars, p.29

Herbert Lee Richardson was put to death in the electric
chair in Alabama in 1989. He had served for three years as a
military technician in a forward area in Vietnam. He was described
as emotionally disturbed by his war experience. He placed a bomb
on the porch of a woman with whom he had been in a close
relationship, causing one death.60
Robert Black, a Vietnam vet, was executed in Texas in 1992
for the murder of his wife. His case illustrates the danger that PTSD
can be mistakenly perceived as aggravating evidence rather than
helpful mitigating evidence. According to a federal appellate court
that denied him relief, Black’s trial attorneys did not raise his warrelated PTSD because they feared it would show him to be a future
danger to society. The court deemed that a strategic choice, rather
than attorney ineffectiveness, which might have resulted in a new
sentence.61
Larry Joe Johnson was electrocuted by the state of Florida in
1993, despite a diagnosis of PTSD. Johnson served in Vietnam and
was honorably discharged. He joined the Kentucky National Guard
and was hit by a smoke grenade during a training exercise, causing
brain damage and hospitalization in a military psychiatric ward.62
He killed a gas station owner.
Terry Dennis was executed in Nevada in 2004, after giving
up his appeals. Dennis had served in the Air Force in Vietnam and
suffered from alcoholism and drug use after the war. He killed a
woman with a belt during a drinking binge.63
Kenneth Lee Boyd was executed in North Carolina in 2005,
th
the 1,000 execution in the modern era. He, too, was a Vietnam
veteran, having operated bulldozers while being shot at by snipers.
Boyd admitted to killing his estranged wife and father-in-law.64
Timothy Adams was executed in Texas in 2011. He had an
exemplary service record in the military, serving in Germany, and
no criminal record. When his wife threatened to leave him, he

60 . Associated Press, “Alabama Man, 43, Is Executed For Killing Girl With Pipe
Bomb,” N.Y. Times, Aug. 19, 1989.
61 . See Black v. Collins, 962 F.2d 394 (5th Cir. 1992). Black’s appellate attorneys
said the trial attorneys failed to fully investigate this issue.
62 . “Florida Electrocutes a Vietnam Veteran for a 1979 Murder,” N.Y. Times,
May 5, 1993.
63 . “Nevada puts killer to death,” Las Vegas Sun, Aug. 13, 2004.
64 . Associated Press, “N.C. Carries out Nation’s 1,000th Execution,” Dec. 2, 2005.

Battle Scars, p.30

snapped, contemplating suicide and shooting his young son after a
standoff in the family’s apartment.65
Cleve Foster served in the military for two decades,
including working as an Army recruiter. He was executed in Texas
in 2012 for rape and murder.66 His appellate attorneys argued that
his trial attorneys should have investigated his military
background, pointing to a subsequent diagnosis of PTSD and
trauma experienced while serving.67
Further research would be needed to discover all of the
veterans executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.68
There may be numerous cases where the veteran’s service was
never identified, never investigated, or never presented to the jury
or the governor prior to execution.

B. Condemned Veterans – Not Executed
Many veterans still face execution, but could be spared if
their cases are reviewed in light of the service they rendered to the
country and any trauma they may have experienced in the military.
Others have been removed from death row, and their cases may be
equally instructive.
The accounts of Courtney Lockhart in Alabama and John
Cunningham in California were told briefly in this report’s
Introduction. Both suffer from PTSD—Lockhart from his service in
Iraq and Cunningham from Vietnam. Both remain on death row
after years of unsuccessful appeals.
George Porter and the Supreme Court
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court
significantly raised the profile of veterans on
death row when they decided Porter v.
McCollum. Death penalty cases often evoke a
sharp division among the Justices, with key
65 . M. Graczyk, "Man who killed toddler son to be executed today," Associated
Press, Huntsville Item, Feb. 22, 2011.
66 . C. Stark "Ex-Army recruiter executed after three previous stays," Huntsville
Item, September 26, 2012.
67 . Memorandum in support of petition for habeas corpus, Foster v.
Quarterman, No. 4:07-CV-210 (U.S.D.C. Northern Dist. of Tex. Mar. 20, 2008), at
36-37 (on file with DPIC).
68 . In addition to those mentioned in this report, other known veterans who
have been executed include: Joseph Wood (2014 AZ), Arthur Rutherford (FL),
Chadwick Banks (FL), Manuel Pardo Jr. (FL), Oba Chandler (FL), Paul Howell
(FL), Harvey Green (NC), Earl Richmond (NC), William Powell (NC), Kenneth
Boyd (NC), John Rose (NC), Daryl Holton (TN), and Timothy McVeigh (Fed).

Battle Scars, p.31

cases being decided by the narrowest of margins. The Porter case,
however, was decided without oral argument and without dissent.
The Court overturned George Porter’s death sentence in Florida,
finding his attorney negligent in not investigating Porter’s military
service and expressing strong confidence that, had evidence of his
combat experience and subsequent mental problems been
presented, a different sentence would likely have been rendered.
To emphasize its point, the Court described in great detail
the battles that Porter had taken part in during the Korean War, the
trauma he experienced, and the aftereffects when he returned
home:
Petitioner George Porter is a veteran who was
both wounded and decorated for his active
participation in two major engagements during the
Korean War; his combat service unfortunately left
him a traumatized, changed man. His commanding
officer’s moving description of those two battles was
only a fraction of the mitigating evidence that his
counsel failed to discover or present during the
penalty phase of his trial in 1988.69
The neuropsychologist who testified at Porter’s postconviction hearing “concluded that Porter suffered from brain
damage that could manifest in impulsive, violent behavior. … [and
that] Porter was substantially impaired in his ability to conform his
conduct to the law and suffered from an extreme mental or
emotional disturbance….”70 The court that decided Porter’s
sentence heard none of this and found no mitigating evidence in his
favor.
The Court criticized the lower courts for dismissing the
impact that such evidence could have had and for “fail[ing] to
engage with what Porter actually went through in Korea.”71 The
Justices concluded by reminding the nation that a special debt is
owed those who have served in the military, and this applies
especially in capital cases, where even a modicum of mercy can
mean the difference between life and death: “Our Nation has a long
tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their
service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter
did."72

69 . Porter v. McCollum, 130 S.Ct. 447, 448 (2009) (per curiam).
70 . Id. at 451.
71 . Id. at 455.
72 . Id.

Battle Scars, p.32

After the case was sent back to Florida for reconsideration,
prosecutors elected not to seek the death penalty for Porter, who
was 78.73 He had killed his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend.
James Floyd Davis: Received His Medals on
Death Row
Davis is a Vietnam veteran from North
Carolina, who was wounded during one of his
two tours of duty. Twenty years ago he lashed
out with a burst of violence, killing three
people including his employer, who had fired
him a few days earlier. At age 68, he suffers
from mental illness and PTSD. He was also a
victim of child abuse. Through the intervention
of Jim Johnson, a therapist who also served in
Vietnam, it was learned that Davis was entitled
to a Purple Heart and other medals earned during his service. The
Army agreed to award him the medals and the prison eventually
agreed to let him receive them. A brief description of the
presentation appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:
On July 29, James Davis was unshackled and
escorted into a small hearing room just off death
row…. Johnson, at 6-foot-6, towered over the
slouched prisoner standing before him. "But when I
prepared to pin his medals on, he stood straight up,
hands cupped to the side," he recalled.
Johnson pinned on two of the medals: the
Purple Heart and the Good Conduct award. He
stepped back and saluted. Davis replied with a
textbook-sharp salute. For a moment, it seemed he
wasn't a prisoner. Forty years later, he was a soldier
again.74
Davis was not allowed to keep his medals. According to his
lawyer, Ken Rose, he remains on death row today, steeped in his
mental illness and intent on giving up his appeals.

73 . See K. Basu, “Aging killer may get reprieve from death row,”
Florida Today, July 21, 2010 (announcement to not seek death).
74 . C. Jacobs, "N.C. death row inmate receives medals earned in Vietnam,"
Fayetteville Observer, Sept. 5, 2009.

Battle Scars, p.33

Johnson pinned on two of the medals: the
Purple Heart and the Good Conduct award. He
stepped back and saluted. Davis replied with a
textbook-sharp salute. For a moment, it seemed he
wasn't a prisoner. Forty years later, he was a
soldier again.
Robert Fisher – Hearing
Only Part of the Story
In the picture at the
left, a young Robert Fisher,
wounded in Vietnam in
1967, is receiving a Purple
Heart medal from
President Lyndon Johnson.
Today, Fisher is in his late
sixties, still on
Pennsylvania’s death row,
a victim of PTSD and other
mental problems. At his
trial for murdering his
girlfriend, Fisher’s lawyer had him tell the jury about his military
service and his medal. But no mental health expert testified at
sentencing to explain Fisher’s brain damage and the psychological
aftereffects of intense combat, including the addictions that
sometimes follow. There were no medical experts testifying for
Fisher because his attorney had not investigated these problems.
He also failed to rebut the prosecution’s portrayal of Fisher as
simply a bad soldier. If Fisher were tried today, there would be
volumes of mitigating evidence to present on his behalf and
numerous experts that could help a jury better understand his
tragic life.75 However, overturning a death sentence once it has
been imposed is often more difficult than preventing it in the first
place.
Gary Cone – Drug Addiction Related to Combat
Drug abuse by returning veterans can be a form of selfmedication to deal with PTSD or other disabilities experienced
during combat. Gary Cone is a Vietnam veteran who was
75 . See Habeas Corpus Petition, Fisher v. Beard, No. 03-788 (U.S. Dist. Ct. for
Eastern Dist. of Pa., Dec. 2, 2003) (available from DPIC) (picture from trial
exhibit).

Battle Scars, p.34

sentenced to death in 1984 for murder during a bizarre crime spree.
He offered an insanity defense, arguing that psychosis induced by
his drug use negated his guilt. He said his drug addiction was
attributable to the trauma he had experienced during the war,
which included handling the bodies of dead soldiers. The
prosecution denied there was any evidence of Cone’s drug problem
and referred to his defense as "baloney." However, police reports,
FBI files and witness statements discovered in the district attorney’s
files 10 years later confirmed Cone’s extensive drug abuse. The U.S.
Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s denial of relief and
remanded his case for reconsideration of his death sentence in light
of the evidence that was withheld, a process that is still under
way.76 He has now been on Tennessee’s death row for 30 years and
is currently in a special needs unit, as his appellate attorneys
continue to fight both his sentence and conviction.
John Thuesen – A New Awareness
John Thuesen is a current example of the problem identified
by the Supreme Court in Porter v. McCollum. After the terror attack
of 9/11, Thuesen volunteered for the military and served as a
Marine during the height of the Iraq war, experiencing extreme
violence in many forms. When he came home, his family noted
how the former football standout had changed, how he had turned
to drinking and was heard sobbing. In 2008, he checked himself
into a Veteran’s hospital, but was released after four days with a
prescription for medication and therapy.77 He was later convicted
of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her brother and sentenced to
death in 2010. He had called the police and confessed to the crime.
Thuesen’s trial lawyers mentioned his military service but
did little to convey the prevalence and severity of PTSD
experienced by Thuesen and many other veterans. Recently, a
Texas District Court judge recommended that his death sentence be
overturned and that he be given a new sentencing hearing. The
judge said the defense attorneys did not do enough in terms of
explaining PTSD to the jury. He also noted that Thuesen was never
properly diagnosed or treated for PTSD and this should have been
presented to the jury. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is
weighing the judge’s recommendation.78

76 . See generally, Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449 (2009); see also Associated Press,
Court rules for Tenn. death-row inmate, April 28, 2009.
77 . B. Grissom, “Considering the Toll of War in a Death Penalty Debate,” Texas
Tribune, Dec. 27, 2013.
78 . J. Walker, “Judge recommends overturning death sentence in capital murder
case,” The Eagle, July 21, 2015.

Battle Scars, p.35

Identifying all the veterans who remain on death row,
especially those with PTSD and other serious mental illness, should
be an imperative. Their cases might reveal critical information that
could result in their lives being spared.

C. Future Cases
Many other accounts could be offered about veterans still on
death row.79 Their life stories are often sad and familiar. However,
few veterans have been spared in the appellate stage of the legal
process because of revelations about their military service.80 Courts
of appeal must find a legal error in the process; they cannot simply
extend mercy because someone is a veteran. That is the role of the
executive branch. However, a review of all the clemencies issued by
governors or pardons boards in capital cases in the modern era
does not reveal a single case where military service served as a key
ground for the commutation.81 While governors do not always say
why they are commuting a death sentence, it seems that reasons
related to a person’s service to his country would be highly
relevant in a public announcement.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Porter may have raised
public consciousness about veterans facing execution, but so far
there has been no official effort to identify all of the veterans on
death row or to spare them from the death penalty. The best time to
avoid the possibility of executing a veteran is before a capital case
comes to trial. No chief prosecutor is obligated to seek the death
penalty in a particular case. If a defendant’s military service is
brought forward early, especially if accompanied by evidence of
trauma, drug dependency, or other disabilities experienced during
service, a decision could be made to seek a different sentence.
However, for that alternative to work, all parties need to be aware
not only of the defendant’s military status, but also of conditions
like PTSD that could make a difference in the ultimate punishment
applied.

79 . Of course, all those under a military death sentence served in the armed
forces. The military has shown particular caution in such cases, with no
executions in almost 55 years. See DPIC, “U.S. Military Death Penalty” at
<http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/us-military-death-penalty>.
80 . Recently, the Florida Supreme Court reduced the death sentence of
Humberto Delgado to life imprisonment because it found his original sentence
disproportionate in light of his severe mental illness, which had manifested itself
before he joined the military. When he was stopped by a police officer−whom he
eventually killed−he was a homeless veteran, pushing a shopping cart along the
roadway. See Delgado v. Florida, 162 So. 3d 971 (2015).
81 . See DPIC, Clemency http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/clemency.

Battle Scars, p.36

What Can Be Done
Although veterans continue to be sentenced to death82 and
even executed, a recent Texas case that garnered significant public
attention illustrates a different approach. Prosecutors declined to
seek the death penalty against Eddie Ray Routh who was charged
with killing Chris Kyle—of “American Sniper” fame—and Kyle’s
friend, Chad Littlefield. Routh had been a Marine and had fought
in Iraq, returning home with PTSD. Prior to the shootings, he had
been hospitalized four times because of his mental problems. Routh
was sentenced to life without parole.83 Kyle had been trying to help
Routh as part of his work with returning veterans suffering from
PTSD.
For a case to be diverted out of the capital punishment
system, it is important that a defendant’s military status be known
from the outset. Almost all states have now passed legislation to
allow drivers to have a veteran designation on their licenses.84 If a
veteran is arrested, this designation gives immediate recognition of
his or her military service. Prosecutors and defense attorneys can
be encouraged to ask defendants about their military background.
Training in how this information can be relevant in a criminal case
is also essential.
In a parallel situation, Mexico had been very concerned
about the number of its citizens facing execution in the U.S.
Although the U.N.’s Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
requires the U.S. to inform arrestees of their right to contact the
Mexican consulate,85 that right was often ignored. By the time the
defendant had been sentenced to death and faced an execution
warrant, it was too late to make a difference. Mexico implemented
a plan of closely monitoring potentially capital cases involving its
citizens in the U.S. Immediate legal and interpretive assistance is
offered, thereby averting many death sentences in the earliest
stages of the case.86 The Veterans Administration could similarly
intervene in cases involving former service members.
82 . Kesaun Sykes was sentenced to death in 2014, along with two his codefendants, Emrys John and Tyrone Miller, who were sentenced in 2013. All of
the defendants were members of the military at the time of the crime, though
PTSD did not appear to be a factor. See L. Juarez, “Ex-Marine sentenced to death
for murders,“ ABC7 Eyewitness News (KABC-TV Los Angeles), Nov. 7, 2014.
83 . See R. Jervis, “'American Sniper' killer found guilty in murders,” USA Today,
Feb. 25, 2015.
84 . See Military Benefits < http://militarybenefits.info/veterans-id-on-driverslicense-id-card-by-state/>, visited Sept. 1, 2015.
85 . Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 596 U.N.T.S. 261, Art. 36, April
24, 1967. Mexico was unsuccessful in trying to have the U.S. Supreme Court
require adherence to the treaty. See Medellin v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008).
86 . C. Soohoo et al., Bringing Human Rights Home 107 (2008).

Battle Scars, p.37

The VA does become involved in many criminal cases
outside of the death penalty context. There are now over 200
Veterans Treatment Courts,87 assisting mainly non-violent
offenders. The judges in these courts are aware of the problems
facing veterans, and peer mentoring and treatment options are
offered to help avoid incarceration. The courts are not funded by
the VA, but Veterans Justice Outreach representatives from the VA
participate in the process. These courts do not require that the vets
had been involved in combat or have identified mental health
issues. They are open to all vets.
The motivation and ideas behind Veterans Courts could be
applied in death penalty cases. Early intervention, peer assistance
from veterans, and involvement of veteran officials with
prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges could all be
instrumental in steering a case away from the death penalty.
Challenging legislators and governors to fashion ways to better
address the special circumstances of veterans who have committed
murder is also needed.
Comprehensive solutions to the unique problems veterans
face in capital cases are beyond the scope of this report. Some
commentators have recommended a complete exemption from the
death penalty for combat veterans suffering from mental problems
at the time of their offense.88 In the interim, experts familiar with
this area of the law89 have offered other recommendations,
including: mental health assessments for capitally charged veterans
by professionals with experience in military health issues;
mandatory training and assistance for defense teams handling such
litigation from military experts;90 education about PTSD and
related matters for prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys who
may be involved in such cases; allowance of mitigation testimony
regarding military culture at capital trials; questioning of potential

87 . See Justice for Vets, History of Veterans Treatment Courts, at
<http://justiceforvets.org/vtc-history>.
88 . See Giardino, note 40 above at 2988; see also London, note 23 above, at 299
(“categorical death penalty exclusion for service members and veterans suffering
from a service-related mental injury when they commit the underlying capital
offense”).
89 . Special thanks to Art Cody (Captain USN (Ret), Legal Director Veterans
Defense Program, New York State Defenders Association); Anthony Giardino
(Attorney and Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve); Brockton Hunter
(former Army Scout; Principal, Law Offices of Brockton D. Hunter, Minneapolis;
Co-Founder/President, Veterans Defense Project; and Co-Author and Editor,
Defending Veterans in Criminal Court, available at veteransdefenseproject.org).
90 . See, e.g., the New York State Defenders Association’s Veteran Defense
Program, at http://www.nysda.org/VeteransDefenseProg.html.

Battle Scars, p.38

jurors regarding their views about the military; and allowing VA
therapists to testify in capital cases.

Battle Scars, p.39

Conclusion
In a rational world, there would be shock
and emotion. I am staring at a man near death, the
corpsman who tends him kneels on a gruesome
composite of turned earth and flesh. No mind
should take in such horror. But in war, cruelty is
commonplace. So there is calmness in our
movements. We have to focus on staying alive.
-Chris Clark, diary from Iraq (2010)

Hundreds of thousands of military veterans have returned
home after fighting in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and
Iraq suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other
mental disabilities and addictions related to their service. A
relatively small but significant number of these veterans committed
heinous murders and received the nation’s worst punishment—the
death penalty. Many have already been executed, but hundreds
remain on death row, while others are facing a possible death
sentence.
In a country that is proud of its renewed respect for
veterans, and that is using the death penalty for a dwindling
number of offenders, capital punishment stands out as a
questionable punishment for those who have served in the military.
Even today, there are veterans on death row with PTSD that was
unexplored at their trial or undervalued for its pernicious effects.
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. Interim steps could be taken to ensure that key
decision-makers in the legal process are aware of a veteran’s
military background as soon as capital charges become possible,
and that they are informed about the gravity of mental problems
that can be traced back to the extremes of combat and training. A
broader understanding of the interaction between jarring trauma
and the later eruption of violence could pave the way for a
thorough re-evaluation of society’s approach to violence and
mental illness, perhaps improving prevention and fashioning an
appropriate response when prevention fails.

The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public
with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. The Center provides indepth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for journalists, and serves as a resource to
those working on this issue. The Center is funded through the generosity of individual donors and
foundations, including the Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the
Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Proteus Action League.

Battle Scars:
Military Veterans and
the Death Penalty
A Report by
the Death Penalty Information Center

DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER
Washington, D.C.

www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

 

 

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