Executing veterans is not a thing of the past. The first person executed in the year 2015, Andrew Brannan, was a veteran of the Vietnam War. But if the death penalty is supposed to be the punishment reserved for the worst of the worst, can executing a veteran ever be justified? Should a veteran’s service to this country be taken into account as a deposit of good will? Do the effects of war on the human brain reduce a veteran’s culpability?

Further Reading

Combat Veterans and the Death Penalty: A Forensic Neuropsychiatric Perspective

Hal S. Wortzel, David B. Arciniegas, Combat Veterans and the Death Penalty: A Forensic Neuropsychiatric PerspectiveJournal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online Sep 2010, 38 (3) 407-414.

Abstract: With our nation’s present conflicts, a new generation of veterans are returning home, many of whom have substantial psychopathology and are encountering significant barriers in accessing care. Headlines from around the nation reflect that some of these wounded warriors go on to commit offenses that are potentially punishable by death. Existing circumstances speak to the urgency with which the subject of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or both facing capital crimes ought to be addressed. This publicity has led to a recent call for a legislatively or judicially enacted, narrow, categorical exclusion for combat veterans who were affected by either PTSD or TBI at the time of their capital offenses. In the present article, we illustrate the reality that combat veterans who commit capital offenses may face execution, summarize legal arguments offered in favor of a categorical exclusion, and provide a neuropsychiatric perspective on PTSD, TBI, and aggression, to help inform further dialogue on this weighty subject.

In a law review article, Giardino1 argues, from the legal perspective, that combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) at the time of their offenses should not be subject to capital punishment. The argument offered is an interesting one that addresses an important topic and warrants further consideration. For a veteran with genuine combat sequelae of PTSD and perhaps TBI, capital punishment for crimes that may be legitimately connected to service-related injuries clearly represents a deplorable outcome. Given that as a nation we have the ability to prevent such an outcome, it is incumbent on us to give the matter of capital punishment for combat veterans serious consideration. However, in considering Giardino’s position, including the call for a categorical exclusion for combat veterans who have either PTSD or TBI at the time of their capital offenses, a more precise examination predicated on the behavioral neuroscience of PTSD, TBI, and aggressive behavior becomes essential. In the present article, we illustrate the reality that some combat veterans are facing execution, summarize the legal arguments offered by Giardino, and provide a neuropsychiatric perspective on PTSD, TBI, and aggression to help inform further dialogue

Combat Veterans, Mental Health Issues, and the Death Penalty: Addressing the Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury by Anthony E. Giardino, Fordham Law Review (2009)

Abstract: More than 1.5 million Americans have participated in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past seven years. Some of these veterans have subsequently committed capital crimes and found themselves in our nation ‘s criminal justice system. This essay argues that combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury at the time of their offenses should not be subject to the death penalty. Offering mitigating evidence regarding military training, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury presents one means that combat veterans may use to argue for their lives during the sentencing phase of their trials. Alternatively, Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons offer a framework for establishing a legislatively or judicially created categorical exclusion for these offenders, exempting them from the death penalty as a matter of law. By understanding how combat service and service-related injuries affect the personal culpability of these offenders, the legal system can avoid the consequences of sentencing to death America’s mentally wounded warriors, ensuring that only the worst offenders are subject to the ultimate punishment. Read the full article.

“Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty” by the Death Penalty Information Center

This report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) discusses how veterans’ issues with PTSD and other brain injuries are not receiving proper recognition in cases where veterans are sentenced to death. Despite increased understanding of how the trauma of war can affect the brain and the general respect veterans are afforded, veterans convicted of capital crimes often do not have such factors taken into consideration. This report also details several examples of veterans who have been executed, who are currently on death row, and who are at risk of being sentenced to death. Read the full report.

“Should Veterans with PTSD Be Exempt from the Death Penalty?”  by Iulia Filip, The Atlantic (2015)

This article discusses the case of Andrew Brannan, a Vietnam veteran executed by the State of Georgia in 2015. The article also address the lack of attention courts give to veterans who commit crimes suffering PTSD. Read the full article.

“Fit to be Killed?” by Eli Hager, The Marshall Project (2015)

This article from The Marshall Project discusses several anecdotes about veterans being executed. Subjects include Vietnam War veteran Andrew Brannan, who was executed for the murder of Sheriff Deputy Kyle Dinkheller; Manny Babbitt, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient executed for the beating death of an elderly woman whom he dog-tagged the way he would a fallen comrade; and Joshua Steppe, an Iraq War veteran whose defense team successfully presented MRI evidence and testimony from a leading PTSD expert to warrant a life sentence. Read the full article.

“The Death Penalty and Combat Vets” by Curtis Stephen, The Crime Report (2014)

This article discusses the case of John Darrell Thuesen, a decorated Marine lance corporal in Iraq convicted of capital murder. The author also discusses some statistics of veterans in prison, some court cases, and veterans courts. Read the full article.