Friday, December 4, 2009

Supreme Court cites combat stress in reversing death penalty

The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a death sentence for a decorated
veteran who fought on the front lines of the Korean War, ruling for the
first time that combat stress must be considered by a jury before it hands
down the harshest punishment.

"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 [George] Porter did," the justices said in a unanimous, unsigned

Porter, 76, was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1986 shooting and
killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend during a drunken rage in
Melbourne, Fla. But his jury was never told, and his appointed lawyer did
not know, of his valiant military service more than 3 decades earlier.

In the past, the high court has set aside just a few death sentences
because a defense lawyer failed to tell jurors of crucial "mitigating
evidence" that would likely have persuaded them to spare his life.

Monday's decision appears to be the first in which the court cited
"post-traumatic stress disorder" from military combat as the kind of
crucial evidence that calls for leniency. It comes as thousands of U.S.
soldiers are being treated for the disorder from the wars in Iraq and

Both the Florida Supreme Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in Atlanta upheld Porter's death sentence, despite his overlooked military
record, but the high court said those decisions were mistaken.

"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," the
justices said.

The court's opinion put defense lawyers in capital cases on notice that
they have a duty to look into their client's background and to tell jurors
about any mitigating evidence that would call for leniency.

In Porter's case, his appointed lawyer testified later that he had only
one short meeting with his client before the trial and that he did not
meet with Porter's family and was unaware of his military record.

This evidence came to light only after his trial and conviction in the
Florida state courts. When his case was appealed in the federal courts, a
new lawyer contacted his family and looked into his background and found
new witnesses to testify for him, including his company commander from

To escape from what the court called a "horrible family life," which
included his father trying to shoot him, Porter had enlisted in the Army
at age 17. He was sent to fight on the front lines in Korea. Twice his
unit was left to hold back charging Chinese troops while the U.S. 8th Army
retreated to the south. Porter's unit fought hand-to-hand combat over five
days and nights at Kunu-ri.

Less than 3 months later, Porter's unit was cut off again from the 8th
Army and forced to fight alone against a Chinese unit at Chip'yung-ni.
Porter was wounded in both battles, and half of his unit was killed or
wounded. He was awarded 2 Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantryman Badge,
along with other decorations.

His commander, Lt. Col. Sherman Pratt, said Porter went AWOL after he
returned to the United States and never adjusted to civilian life. He
drank heavily, suffered from nightmares and was prone to violent and
impulsive behavior.

More than 30 years after his combat experience in Korea, he was charged
with shooting and killing Evelyn Williams and Walter Burrows. There was
little doubt of his guilt. Porter first decided to represent to himself,
then asked to plead guilty halfway through the trial.

That evening, he tried to commit suicide in jail.

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