NEW VOICES: Veterans and the Death Penalty

Two former military servicemen raised concerns about the use of the death penalty for war veterans who have endured traumatic experiences while serving in the United States military. Karl Keys, a former Marine, and Bill Pelke, a former sergeant in the First Air Cavalry, cited the examples of James Floyd Davis and Manny Babbitt, veterans who received Purple Hearts for their service in the Vietnam War but were sentenced to death nevertheless. Davis and Babbitt were both suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when they committed the crimes that resulted in their death sentences. Babbitt was executed in 1999 in California shortly after he received his Purple Heart.  Davis currently resides on North Carolina's death row.  Keys and Pelke wrote, "Soldiers are coming home traumatized by the carnage they've seen. As veterans, we believe those who commit crimes due to severe mental problems should be treated, not killed." They go on to say, "Capital punishment's costs to states drain our tax dollars away from smarter and more effective approaches to law enforcement and crime prevention and from additional quality, affordable mental health services."  Read the entire article below.

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STUDIES: Disparate Administration of the Military Death Penalty

A recent study of the military death penalty by Professor David Baldus revealed disparities depending on whether the victim in the underlying crime was also a member of the military or was a civilian.  The paper was co-authored by Professors Catherine Grosso and George Woodworth and will be published by the Michigan Journal of Law Reform.  The authors note that despite a 1984 executive order that "defined death eligible murder in the armed forces principally in terms of civilian murder modeled after state law systems," the military death penalty has been implemented in such a way that shows a large disparity between military murder and civilian murder. The study concluded that soldiers who are accused of civilian murder were less likely to face a capital court martial, to receive a capital conviction, and to be sentenced to death than soldiers who were accused of a military murder (murder of a commissioned or non-commissioned officer). "In this process," the report said, "the military death penalty has come to be used almost exclusively as a disciplinary vehicle to protect the authority and effectiveness of military command."

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ARBITRARINESS: U.S. Military Rejects Guilty Plea Offer to Seek Death Penalty and Soldier is Freed

In a recent military death penalty case, the prosecutors rejected a plea agreement that would have resulted in a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty.  The defendant, Sergeant Alberto Martinez, was then found not guilty on December 4, 2008, of murdering two fellow soldiers and walked free.  Two years before the trial, Sgt. Martinez signed an offer to plead guilty to the murder charges and to describe “the essential facts and circumstances of the offenses to which I am pleading guilty” to the judge for a sentence of life in prison.  The prosecutors in the case rejected the plea.  Major John Benson, a prosecutor in the case who was not involved in the decision to reject the plea said, “I wish that the guilty plea had been accepted.  I don’t think there can be any doubt whatsoever as to his guilt.”  Barbara Allen, the widow of one of the slain officers, said, “They had a conviction handed to them and chose not to take it.”  In the trial, a military jury requires a two-thirds majority to convict.  When prosecutor Major Benson described why the jury didn’t reach a guilty verdict, he said, “A strong opposition to death penalty was a definite factor among some of the panel members.”  He added, “It’s quite possible that they were not able to separate the conviction from the punishment.” 

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