In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court confronted the issue of the overwhelming impact that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has on combat veterans. This decision sends a signal to courts, lawyers and the medical/legal community that PTSD cannot be ignored when veterans are tried and sentenced for violent crimes.
In Porter v. McCollum (No. 08-10537. Nov. 30, 2009), the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Korean War combat veteran who plead guilty to the 1986 murders of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend.
George Porter, Jr., was convicted of the murders following trials and appeals in the Florida and federal courts. A jury ultimately imposed a death sentence. However, during the trial and sentencing phases, Porter’s defense attorney failed to introduce evidence that Porter had experienced intense combat-related trauma and that he suffered from PTSD. A federal district court judge ruled that such ineffective legal counsel violated the defendant’s constitutional right to an attorney, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed and reinstated the death sentence.
Porter had been wounded in two violent enemy encounters during his Army service in Korea. Hand-to-hand combat and a rain of machine gun and mortar fire in freezing weather raged for days. On appeal of the jury’s death sentence, Porter’s commanding officer testified as to the horrific nature of the two battles. A psychiatrist also testified as to Porter’s PTSD.
“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,” said the Supreme Court in its opinion. “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.”
In the end, the Court refused to overturn Porter’s conviction, but concluded that the jury and judge that imposed the death sentence, had it heard about Porter’s combat experiences and PTSD, might well have refused to invoke the death penalty. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that he was not prejudiced by his defense lawyer’s failure to raise these circumstances as mitigating factors was, in the Court’s opinion, unreasonable.
Ultimately, the Court sent the case back to the Eleventh Circuit and ordered it to start a new sentencing proceeding.
So, what does this case mean for veterans who suffer from PTSD and who commit violent crimes? Does combat service equal a get-out-of-jail-free card? Of course it doesn’t. What it does suggest is that at a time when our nation is fighting two wars, when we are going to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan, when more than a third of service members returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have reported symptoms of PTSD, our system of justice must affirmatively take into account the mental and emotional toll that combat can take on even the best of us. While military service cannot justify or excuse violent crime, knowledge about the circumstances surrounding a defendant’s military service can, as the Supreme Court recognized, “humanize” a criminal defendant so that a judge and jury can make an informed decision about the appropriate punishment.
Lawyers with clients in similar cases can point to the Supreme Court’s reference to the prevalence of PTSD in combat veterans and its favorable view of state laws, such as those in California and Minnesota that provide special legal protection for criminally accused veterans who suffer from PTSD, to argue that the Supreme Court intended the Porter decision to apply more broadly than just to the specific facts surrounding his case.