"Post-combat stress as a defense," is the title of Lyle Denniston's SCOTUS Blog post.
The Supreme Court, in a sign of the times for a nation at war on two fronts, on Monday put defense lawyers on notice that they should be prepared to use evidence of “post-traumatic stress disorder” to try to save accused veterans from the death penalty. Ruling without full briefing or a hearing, and with no dissent noted, the Court apparently overturned the death sentence of a Florida veteran whose “combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man,” as the Court put it in Porter v. McCollum (08-10537), involving Korean war veteran George Porter, Jr. The unsigned opinion can be found here.
“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,” the opinion said. “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.”
Because the case turned mainly on the specific facts of the prosecution and defense of Porter for murdering his former girlfriend and her boyfriend, it is not clear that the ruling will have a direct impact on other criminal cases in which combat stress might be a key factor. However, parts of the Court’s opinion read as if the Justices did intend to speak more broadly.
It noted that post-traumatic stress disorder “is not uncommon among veterans returning from combat,” and cited testimony before Congress this year by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki that “approximately 23 percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment at a VA medical facility had been preliminarily diagnoses with PTSD.” It also noted that, in Porter’s case specifically, a medical expert testified that his symptoms “would ‘easily’ warrant a diagnosis” of PTSD.
Adam Liptak writes, "Justices Say War Trauma Must be Weighed in Capital Cases," in the New York Times.
A death penalty lawyer’s failure to present evidence of the trauma his client suffered in combat in the Korean War requires a new sentencing hearing, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday.
The decision makes clear that lawyers for clients facing the death penalty must present evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from military service if it is available.
The unsigned 15-page decision displayed unusual solicitude for a death-row inmate, noting that “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.”
The defendant, George Porter Jr., was convicted in 1987 of murdering his former girlfriend, Evelyn Williams, and her boyfriend, Walter Burrows, in Melbourne, Fla., the previous year. Mr. Porter represented himself for part of his trial and then decided to plead guilty.
He turned to a court-appointed lawyer, Sam Bardwell, to represent him in the sentencing hearing. Mr. Bardwell, who had never represented a defendant in a capital sentencing proceeding, did not interview any of his client’s relatives and did not obtain any school, medical or military service records. He presented only one witness, Mr. Porter’s ex-wife.
Mr. Bardwell’s investigation, Monday’s decision said, was not “even cursory.” Mr. Bardwell has explained that his client had been fatalistic and uncooperative. He did not respond to a message seeking comment on Monday.
Mr. Bardwell’s conduct “did not reflect reasonable professional judgment,” the decision said. “Had Porter’s counsel been effective, the judge and jury would have learned,” among other things, “about Porter’s heroic military service in two of the most critical — and horrific — battles of the Korean War.”
Today's Chicago Tribune carries, "Supreme Court cites combat stress in reversing death penalty," by David Savage.
The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a death sentence for a decorated veteran who fought on the front lines of the Korean War, ruling for the first time that combat stress must be considered by a jury before it hands down the harshest punishment.
"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 [George] Porter did," the justices said in a unanimous, unsigned opinion.
Porter, 76, was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1986 shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend during a drunken rage in Melbourne, Fla. But his jury was never told, and his appointed lawyer did not know, of his valiant military service more than three decades earlier.
In the past, the high court has set aside just a few death sentences because a defense lawyer failed to tell jurors of crucial "mitigating evidence" that would likely have persuaded them to spare his life.
Monday's decision appears to be the first in which the court cited "post-traumatic stress disorder" from military combat as the kind of crucial evidence that calls for leniency. It comes as thousands of U.S. soldiers are being treated for the disorder from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both the Florida Supreme Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld Porter's death sentence, despite his overlooked military record, but the high court said those decisions were mistaken.
"George Porter is a veteran who was both wounded and decorated for his active participation in two major engagements during the Korean War. His combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man," the justices said.
The court's opinion put defense lawyers in capital cases on notice that they have a duty to look into their client's background and to tell jurors about any mitigating evidence that would call for leniency.
In Porter's case, his appointed lawyer testified later that he had only one short meeting with his client before the trial and that he did not meet with Porter's family and was unaware of his military record.
Tony Mauro writes, "Supreme Court Sides With Florida Inmate on Ineffective Assistance," for the BLT.
Returning from its Thanksgiving break, the Supreme Court today issued a powerful unsigned "per curiam" opinion agreeing that the ineffective assistance of counsel for Florida death row inmate George Porter Jr. prejudiced the sentence he received after his murder trial in 1988. He was convicted in the murder of a former girlfriend and her boyfriend. The Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit previously rejected his ineffective assistance claim.
Ruling in Porter v. McCollum, available here, the Court extensively detailed Porter's "horrible family life" and his trying Korean War experiences that earned him two Purple Hearts and other decorations -- none of which was told to the trial court as mitigating evidence during sentencing. The trial lawyer's failure to introduce the evidence "did not reflect reasonable professional judgment" and could well have affected the outcome of the case, the Court said.In language that is sure to be cited in future cases involving veterans, the Court said that the fact that Porter went AWOL in Korea did not detract from the significance of his combat experience as mitigating evidence.