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December 31 2009 | UNITED STATES


Supreme Court considers combat-related mental illness as a mitigation factor in capital sentences

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Purple Hearts On Death Row: War Damaged Vets Should Not Be Executed By the State

By Karl R. Keys and Bill Pelke, AlterNet

Mental exhaustion. Battle fatigue. PTSD. Whatever it's called, many of our soldiers who served in wars over the years came home with combat-related mental illness, traumatized by the carnage and destruction they saw and experienced.

Unfortunately, too many veterans' mental conditions have fueled criminal behavior resulting in their imprisonment. Dating back to the Civil War, veteran incarceration rates increased after each conflict.

This is not a small, marginal problem. Government statistics for the 1980s show that 21 percent of state prison inmates then were Vietnam veterans. The U.S. Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration estimate that two of every five of the 800,000 new Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

The stories of two such veterans illustrate this tragedy. This fall, Vietnam veteran James Floyd Davis was finally presented the awards due to him -- a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct medal -- in a small ceremony held in a hearing room in a North Carolina prison. Davis, now 62, was not permitted to keep his medals after the ceremony.

That's because Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing three people at an Asheville, North Carolina tool company from which he had been fired. At trial, evidence was introduced that he lived alone, talked to himself, instigated arguments with co-workers and shot imaginary groundhogs on his front lawn with his .44 magnum. Further testimony revealed that when he was a child, his alcoholic father threatened to cut Davis' and his siblings' throats while they slept and burn down the house. Davis' father beat him with a mop handle, and would lock the refrigerator and hide the key while Davis went hungry.

What wasn't introduced at trial was that Davis, who attained the rank of sergeant in Vietnam, fought on a Central Highlands firebase during the Tet Offensive, where he lost his hearing, was hit with shrapnel, some of which remains in his leg, and went home with depression, paranoid schizophrenia and PTSD. His marriage fell apart, and he attempted suicide. It isn't certain if Davis will be executed, but he has given up his legal appeals. North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Appeals and one of its attorneys, Ken Rose, continues to advocate for him.

Manny Babbitt, another Vietnam War veteran and a Marine, earned his Purple Heart for courage under fire in the battle of Khe Sanh, where 737 Americans died and more than 2,500 soldiers were wounded. Hit by rocket shrapnel that opened his skull, Babbitt lost consciousness and was thought to be dead. He was loaded onto a pile of corpses by helicopter operators where he regained consciousness surrounded by severed limbs and bodies.

He returned from Vietnam suffering from PTSD, exhibiting bizarre and violent behavior. Eventually he broke into the home of Leah Shendel, an elderly woman, and beat her. She later died of a heart attack.

His brother, Bill Babbitt, turned him in to authorities believing that he owed it to the larger community, and expecting that his war hero brother would get the medical attention he needed and deserved. But not long after being awarded his Purple Heart, Manny Babbitt was executed one minute after midnight, May 4, 1999, in the state of California, on his 50th birthday.

As veterans ourselves, we believe that people who commit crimes as a result of severe mental impairments should not be executed. In 2006, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates adopted that recommendation, which was officially endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia exempts certain persons with impaired mental capacities from the death penalty. But not all states employ this exemption. Many of the same factors present in the cases of individuals without mental impairments who are executed are also present in the cases of those with them: Inability to afford effective legal counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct, unfair and racially biased application of the punishment, and unreliable and false witness testimony at trial.

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. Abolishing capital punishment would be a major step forward in criminal justice and mental health reform. In November the nation observed Veterans Day and on December 7th it will observe Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, yet another occasion for honoring war veterans. As you do so, please take a moment to remember James Floyd Davis and Manny Babbitt -- and to work to ensure that no other mentally impaired veterans are treated as they were. We owe that much and more to our men and women in uniform.

Karl R. Keys is a former Marine who has served on the Board of Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing.

Bill Pelke, who was a sergeant in the First Air Calvary infantry unit, is President and co-founder of Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing, an organization led by murder victim family members joined by death row family members, family members of the executed, the exonerated, and others, that conducts public education speaking tours and addresses alternatives to the death penalty. He is on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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