Military Service, PTSD, and the Death Penalty

December 1, 2009

A day before President Obama is to announce plans for escalating troop deployments in Afghanistan, the US Supreme Court issued an important ruling concerning returning veterans overwhelmed by the trauma of combat.

The Court on Monday sent the death penalty case of George Porter back to the state of Florida for re-sentencing, without bothering to hold a hearing.  The 15-page order featured a passionate (by Supreme Court standards) honoring of Porter’s Korean War service and a compassionate recognition of the debilitating effects of the subsequent trauma he suffered.  The Justices ruled that the Porter’s lawyer was constitutionally deficient for failing to provide the jury with information about his Porter’s military service and the severe mental health consequences that followed.
A reasonable jury, the Court concluded, would likely recommend a life sentence if confronted with such compelling testimony. 

“The relevance of Porter’s extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions, but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter.”

The Court’s ruling could prove to be quite important; veterans are not unknown on America’s death rows.  Just this November, Virginia put to death two veterans of US military service – John Allen Muhammad, who served in the first Gulf War, and who had severe mental illness claims similar to Porter’s; and Larry Bill Elliott, a former military intelligence officer. 

Military service is also not the only cause of severe post traumatic issues.  But the Court in this case suggested that there is a special significance to military service, and particularly serious combat duty, perhaps seeking to discourage too broad an interpretation of their order. 

Whatever the ultimate impact of this ruling turns out to be, there is no doubt that, as American men and women continue to be sent into combat, some will return having endured terrible trauma, and, sadly, this question will continue to be relevant.