Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Justices face facts

In blocking execution, Supreme Court acknowledges the truth of combat stress

December 07, 2009, 6:48 AM /
In a remarkable and relevant move by the U. S. Supreme Court, the death sentence for a decorated Korean War veteran has been unanimously overturned, suggesting a strong recognition that post-traumatic stress disorder has afflicted veterans of wars past and present.

This is an important topic, as soldiers continue to return from Afghanistan and Iraq, where many have been traumatized beyond our civilian imaginations. And, as was the case with Korean War veteran George Porter Jr., there are lingering wounds that never healed.

This page opposes the death penalty in any case. While the punishment may fit some crimes, it cannot be applied fairly or with any assurance that innocent people are not put to death.

But given that capital punishment is carried out, even enthusiastically, in many states, juries must not only be allowed, but required, to consider relevant evidence that may undermine the case for execution. The Supreme Court last week ruled that post traumatic stress disorder constitutes such evidence. It found that the Florida man’s “combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man,” as it stated in Porter v. McCollum.

Porter was convicted in the 1986 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her then-boyfriend in Florida during a drunken rage. At the time of sentencing, neither his lawyer nor the jury knew of his military service more than three decades earlier.

Both the Florida Supreme Court and the 11th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had upheld Porter’s death sentence, despite new information about his military record. As the high court said, those decisions were mistaken.

Such detailed information should be probed by defense attorneys, and the Supreme Court’s decision has put them on notice. “Our nation has a long tradition of according to leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did,” according to the opinion.

The relevance of Porter’s extensive combat experience not only had to do with the fact that he served honorably “under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions,” the Supreme Court stated, but that the jury might find mitigating “the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter.”

What the court did not say is that PTSD automatically shields convicts from the death penalty. All it does is require jurors to know about it before reaching one of the most critical decisions most humans will ever make.

It is significant that the court determined Porter would have been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, by today’s standards, and that it recited testimony from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who reported that 23 percent of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sought treatment through the VA had been preliminarily diagnosed with PTSD.

The court sent the case back to the 11th Circuit Court, which would presumably order a new sentencing proceeding but the court’s order did not say what the justices expected. Perhaps what can be expected is improved recognition and consideration for veterans who have fought for this country and returned damaged from the experience, whether it is obvious surface injuries or those that require further probing.

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