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Veterans on death row often show signs of mental health issues — and are executed anyway

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This Veterans Day, about 10 percent of people on death row are military veterans.

The figure comes from a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center, which found that roughly 300 veterans are currently among the more than 3,000 people on death row today.

The report calls for mercy for these inmates, arguing that many of them are suffering from psychological and emotional wounds that are often undiagnosed, untreated, or even misunderstood.

It cites, for instance, the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with no criminal record who was the first person executed in 2015:

He qualified for 100% disability from the Veterans Administration because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and bipolar mental illness. He was stopped in Georgia for speeding. After being told to get out of his truck, he started acting bizarrely, begging the police officer to shoot him. He then retrieved a rifle from his truck and fired nine shots, killing a young deputy sheriff. The defense made little mention of his military experience, and the prosecution mocked his claim of PTSD ("everybody's got a little bit of PTSD"), implying he was malingering. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied him clemency.

In Alabama, a similar story has played out with Courtney Lockhart, who was sentenced to death by a judge after a jury unanimously voted against a death sentence:

Courtney Lockhart from Alabama spent 16 months in Ramadi, Iraq, a region known as the deadliest part of the country. Sixty-four members of his brigade died while in Iraq. Of those who survived, many suffered from PTSD, including Lockhart. At least 12 soldiers from the brigade have been arrested for murder or attempted murder. Unfortunately, his trial attorneys did little to investigate or portray this military background. Lockhart was convicted of murdering a young student at Auburn University. He confessed to killing the victim, but said it was an accident. The jury unanimously voted against a death sentence, recommending life in prison instead. However, Alabama is one of a very few states that allows the judge to override the jury, and Lockhart was sentenced to death by the presiding judge. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court considered taking his case for review—probably on the issue of judges overriding jury recommendations for life—but ultimately denied Lockhart’s petition. He remains on death row.

Other times, veterans show other signs of mental health issues but are still placed on death row — like Scott Panetti:

Scott Panetti had been in the Navy before his downward spiral into mental illness led him to shave his head, put on combat fatigues, and kill his in-laws in Texas in 1992. Prior to the murder, he was treated and often given medications at mental hospitals, including VA facilities in Texas. At his death penalty trial he called himself "sarge" and was allowed to defend himself dressed in an old-time cowboy suit. During the trial, he told irrelevant stories from his time in the Navy and subpoenaed Jesus Christ as a witness. Despite a farcical legal process, he was convicted, sentenced to death, and remains on death row today. He was in the care of the VA after his service and perhaps more could have been done by officials to treat Panetti earlier, to dissuade the court from allowing him to represent himself in a capital trial, or to convince the state that he should be spared execution.

Many of these veterans don't get proper medical treatment for their trauma — only about half of veterans who meet the criteria for current PTSD or major depression sought mental health care in the previous year, a 2008 study from the RAND Corporation found. So it's possible some of these crimes could have been prevented entirely if these veterans simply got treatment.

The Death Penalty Information Center report cautions that the great majority of veterans do not commit violent crime. Still, the report argues that "many have experienced trauma that few others in society have ever encountered — trauma that may have played a role in their committing serious crimes."

The report is also careful to state that mental health issues by no means justify the crimes committed by some veterans, but that perhaps a more lenient sentence is more fitting, given the mitigating circumstance. Then again, in a criminal justice system that executes people who are literally missing parts of their brain, mercy doesn't seem to come easy.

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