U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence Citing Veteran's War Trauma

On November 30, the United States Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of George Porter, a Korean War veteran from Florida who had been convicted of murder in 1988. The Court stated that Porter’s trial lawyer failed to investigate and present ample mitigating evidence, including the fact that Porter’s battle service in the war left him severely traumatized. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had held that such evidence would not have made a difference at sentencing. The Supreme Court accepted Porter’s petition and without dissent issued its opinion the same day, stating, “Petitioner 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. His commanding officer’s moving description of those two battles was only a fraction of the mitigating evidence that his counsel failed to discover or present during the penalty phase of his trial in 1988.”

Porter represented himself during his pre-trial proceedings and for much of the guilt-phase of the trial. He then pleaded guilty, but asked for counsel during the penalty phase of the case. His inexperienced lawyer put on only one witness in mitigation—Porter’s ex-wife. In addition to the evidence that was not presented about the trauma from his participation in the war, there was significant evidence of violent abuse in Porter’s childhood. The Court noted: “It is unreasonable to discount to irrelevance the evidence of Porter’s abusive childhood, especially when that kind of history may have particular salience for a jury evaluating Porter’s behavior in his relationship with [his girlfriend] Williams. It is also unreasonable to conclude that Porter’s military service would be reduced to ‘inconsequential proportions,’ simply because the jury would also have learned that Porter went AWOL on more than one occasion. 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.” (citations omitted).

(Porter v. McCollum, No. 08-10537 (U.S. Nov. 30, 2009) (per curiam)). See also U.S. Supreme Court and Representation.