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May 4, 2016

"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"

The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article.  The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:

At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"

He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis.  Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend.  She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand."  Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse.  When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."

The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case.  Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.

While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs.  In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing.  Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders.  Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration.  He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.

The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty?  An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.

Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion."  Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities.  In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service."  In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence.  "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.

That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence.  To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."

May 4, 2016 at 10:04 AM | Permalink

Comments

Did the disorder really come before some traumatic stress event? I think back on the Vietnam days when the government recruited guys into the Army right out of mental hospitals. These guys had "organic" mental disease. They did not go wacko because they killed some gooks down in the hole in the ground while they were acting as "tunnel rats". Now many are walking around wacko with the name tag PTSD.

Posted by: BarkinDog | May 6, 2016 10:26:18 AM

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