Veterans sentenced to death in Texas murder cases — and nationwide — might have escaped the punishment if juries had been told about their military service and any ensuing mental health problems, according to a Death Penalty Information Center report released Tuesday.
About 300 veterans are on death rows across the country, Richard C. Dieter, the center's senior program director, found in his report “Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty," released on the eve of Veterans Day. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it knows of 15 Texas death row inmates who are veterans.
“PTSD is not an excuse for all criminal acts, but it is a serious mental and emotional disorder that should be a strong mitigating factor against imposing the death penalty,” Dieter says. But often juries, judges and even a defendant's own lawyer might not know about a veteran's mental condition, he said.
The report cites several examples of veterans who have been executed or sentenced to death in Texas with little or no consideration of their mental state.
- Vietnam War veteran Robert Black was executed in 1992 for killing his wife. His trial attorneys knew about his PTSD diagnosis but did not present the evidence out of fear it would hurt his case.
- In 1995, Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed a woman from Goodfellow Air Force Base. He did not have a criminal record. He was executed in 2003. Jones was exposed to nerve gas in Iraq and suffered post-traumatic stress, according to attorneys.
- Timothy Adams was executed in 2011 for shooting and killing his son after his wife threatened to leave him. He was a veteran with no previous criminal record. His mental state related to service is not available.
- Cleve Foster was executed for rape and murder in 2012. His attorneys did not investigate his military service background, but he was diagnosed with PTSD.
- Death row inmate John Thuesen, who killed his ex-girlfriend and her brother, was sentenced to death in 2010. He is awaiting a ruling on whether he will receive a new trial after a Brazos County District Court judge ruled evidence of his service-related mental illness was not thoroughly presented in his double-murder trial.
Not every veteran has seen combat, said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates. But those who served and saw combat often face difficulties bringing that information into a trial, she added.
“Part of this is jurors can’t know about military service,” Kase said. “They can’t know if somebody has served his country unless his lawyers actually go and look for that information and obtain the records. And the further back it is, the more difficult it is to obtain complete records.”
But military experience should factor into consideration of a defendant's mental state in capital cases, Kase said. “That ought to be taken into account before we decide whether they should live or die.”