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Why are 10% of prisoners on death row veterans, some with PTSD?

Noting that some 300 U.S. veterans are sitting on death row in prisons around the country, an advocacy group Tuesday called for greater efforts to assist battle-scarred former troops who are convicted of capital murder after their military service.

The report from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington found that veterans represent about 10% of those convicted of capital murder, roughly the same as their percentage of the overall prison population.

Researchers also concluded that judges, prosecutors and even the White House sometimes fail to appreciate the impact that post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental issues can cause for returning veterans.

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“Capital punishment stands out as a questionable punishment for those who have served in the military,” said Richard C. Dieter, the center’s senior programs director and formerly its longtime executive director. “Even today, there are veterans on death row with PTSD that was unexplored at their trial or undervalued for its pernicious effects.”

Dieter called for an “thorough examination” of America’s veterans on death row, targeting the timing of the report to the Veterans Day observance on Wednesday.

He said prosecutors and judges should be “aware of a veteran’s military background as soon as capital charges become possible,” as well as any mental problems from his service record.

“A broader understanding of the interaction between jarring trauma and the later eruption of violence could pave the way for a thorough reevaluation of society’s approach to violence and mental illness,” he said. More should be done “in a country that is proud of its renewed respect for veterans.”

Kent S. Scheidegger, however, a leading supporter of the death penalty and legal director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said a PTSD diagnosis does not automatically lead to violent acts.

“The defense has the right to have any issues in litigation brought up and considered by the jury,” he said in an interview. “But saying someone has PTSD is an enormously broad statement.”

Scheidegger said jurors and judges should be required to find a specific connection between a veteran’s mental incapacity and the crime committed.

“It’s a lot stronger mitigation case for the defense if there is a causal connection,” he said. “But in most cases, it has little mitigating value” in helping a defendant.

He added that PTSD and other military service-related issues often are not brought up at trial because defense lawyers “don’t think it will work for the jury.”

The report comes at a time of increased scrutiny over how lethal drugs are obtained and administered for executions, and as polls show the American public is becoming increasingly opposed to the death penalty.

The center's report highlighted the case of Louis Jones Jr., a decorated soldier from the first Gulf War and Grenada, who was put to death in 2003 after President George W. Bush refused to commute his sentence on allegations he suffered from PTSD after parachuting under enemy fire.

Though he had no prior criminal record, his murder of Army Pvt. Tracie McBride was particularly gruesome. He kidnapped her in Texas, raped her and then beat her to death.

His defense lawyers argued that he was deeply afflicted with PTSD and his wife testified that in the days before the attack that he assaulted her too, acting “very crazed,” “panicked” and “spinning out of control.”

Jones’ jury found that he committed the murder under severe mental or emotional disturbance, but sentenced him to death regardless.

The report also cited Andrew Brannan, the first person executed this year. He was a decorated combat veteran from the Vietnam War and qualified for a 100% disability for PTSD and bipolar mental illness, the report said.

One of the prosecutors at his trial for killing a deputy sheriff in Georgia downplayed Brannan's mental issues. “Everybody’s got a little bit of PTSD,” the prosecutor told the jury.

Another Vietnam combat veteran-turned-convict, John Cunningham, learned in July that the California Supreme Court had upheld his death sentence for killing three people. The report said he confessed to the crime, and described “dreams and experiences in Vietnam and expressing relief at being caught.”

James Floyd Davis, a Vietnam veteran from North Carolina, served two battle tours and was wounded, the report found. Twenty years ago, he killed three people, including a work supervisor who had fired him. The report said he suffered from mental illness and PTSD.

Even so, in 2009 Davis was briefly unshackled, escorted to a small room off death row and presented with two belated military medals -- the Purple Heart and the Good Conduct Medal. Then he was returned to death row, where he remains.

Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT

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