A Veterans Day Review: Recent Cases Highlight Concerns About Veterans and the Death Penalty

As Americans become increasingly aware of the role of combat trauma in the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders, the shift in public perceptions towards veterans suffering from these disorders has played out in the courts in recent death penalty cases. In 2018, at least four military veterans facing death sentences have instead been sentenced to life in prison, and another two veterans won relief in their death-penalty cases. One military veteran has been executed so far this year.

In January, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) wrote in support of exempting mentally ill veterans from capital punishment, saying, "we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. ...[W]e can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness." Prosecutors and juries in Indiana, Florida, Colorado, and Virginia have considered the military service and service-related disorders of murder defendants and determined that life sentences were more appropriate than the death penalty. In the Virginia trial of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton, his attorneys presented evidence that he had been a model soldier who had saved the life of a fellow serviceman, but faced PTSD-related disorders and a deteriorating family life when he returned home. At Glen Law Galloway's trial in Colorado, Denver public defender Daniel King presented four days of testimony about Galloway’s character and background, including how the former Army veteran “snapped” following the collapse of his relationship with his girlfriend. King argued, “Mr. Galloway is not just the worst thing that he’s done. He’s committed many acts of kindness, friendship, service, love and duty.” In May, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas in two unrelated cases involving military veterans Darren Vann in Indiana and Esteban Santiago in Florida. Santiago faced federal charges for a mass shooting, but prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because Santiago, an Iraq war veteran, suffers from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, had unsuccessfully sought treatment and assistance from the Veterans Administration, and had been committed to a mental hospital because of the seriousness of his mental illness.

Two death-sentenced prisoners were granted relief this year as a result of failures by their defense counsel to investigate and present mitigating evidence related to their military service and their service-related mental health disorders. Andrew Witt, an air force veteran who had been on U.S. military death row, received a life sentence after a court found his attorneys ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Robert Fisher's death sentence was reversed by a Pennsylvania federal court in part because his lawyer did not investigate or present evidence related to his service in Vietnam. Fisher was a Purple Heart recipient who struggled with brain damage, drug abuse, and mental health problems after his service.

On July 18, Ohio executed Robert Van Hook, an honorably discharged veteran who was suffering from long-term effects of physical and sexual abuse as a child and untreated mental health issues at the time of the offense. Van Hook had been unable to obtain care for his mental health and addiction issues from veterans service agencies after his discharge.

A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service.

(Posted by DPIC, November 12, 2018.) See Mental Illness and U.S. Military.