An anti-death penalty advocacy group on Wednesday released its annual report showing that the number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. in 2016 was at a 40-year low. It also found that 20 percent of Americans put to death this year were military veterans.
The report, from the Death Penalty Information Center, found that of the 20 people who had their death sentences carried out in 2016, four were veterans of various branches of the military — three of the four men were executed in Georgia, which put more people to death (nine) in 2016 than any other state, including Texas (seven).
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Veterans on death row has been a concern for the DPIC, and the organization said that the number veterans executed in 2016 "continued to highlight the plight of veterans and the death penalty."
In 2015, the DPIC issued a report specifically about military veterans and the death penalty, arguing that combat experiences could have played a role in the crimes that led hundreds of vets to death row and should be considered at sentencing. The report cites a study that found the vast majority of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan witnessed some sort of trauma — from seeing dead bodies and human remains to being directly responsible for the death of a child — while overseas. These types of experiences, the report argues, can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness the organization believes should be considered as a mitigating factor in the sentencing phase of a death penalty case.
"PTSD is not an excuse for all criminal acts, but it is a serious mental and emotional disorder that should be a strong mitigating factor against imposing the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, DPIC's Senior Program Director and the author of the report. "Defense attorneys representing veterans accused of capital crimes often fail to investigate and present evidence of PTSD and other war-related mental injuries. Prosecutors, judges and juries are often not adequately informed about the psychological effects of being immersed in combat, even though the mental scars of war can be just as debilitating as physical injuries."
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The group points to Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran put to death in 2015, as demonstrative of the long-standing effects of PTSD and how it can contribute to crimes carried out by veterans suffering from it.
Brannan was stopped for speeding by a Georgia sheriff's deputy in 1998 after the officer, Laurens County Sheriff's Deputy Kyle Dinkheller, spotted him driving nearly 100 mph. Disturbing video of the shooting, viewed by Vocativ, shows Brannan immediately hop out of his truck and become irate — while dancing in the middle of the road, he repeatedly told Dinkheller to shoot him before screaming "I'm a goddamn Vietnam combat veteran" as the deputy repeatedly told him to get his hands out of his pockets. Brannan then returned to his truck and grabbed a rifle as Dinkheller yelled for him to drop the gun. The two then engaged in a shootout that came to an end when Brannan shot the already wounded Dinkheller in the head. He's heard in the video saying "die, fucker" before taking the fatal shot. Video of the shootout is now used to train police officers across the country in how to handle potentially deadly traffic stops.
At trial, Brannan's attorneys argued that he suffered from PTSD after serving combat missions in Vietnam in 1975. Brannan, his attorneys explained, was diagnosed in 1994 with depression and bipolar disorder and declared 100 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. One of the psychiatrists who testified on his behalf said his strange, aggressive reaction towards Dinkheller "was likely the result of a flashback to Brannan's time in combat."
"Andrew's combat experience forever altered his personality and his life," his lawyers wrote in a petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles just prior to his execution. "Although he initially re-entered civilian life, he soon began to manifest signs of serious mental illness, which grew worse over time."
"At a time in which the death penalty is being imposed less and less frequently, it is disturbing that so many veterans who were mentally and emotionally scarred while serving their country are now facing execution," said Robert Dunham, Executive Director of DPIC. "It is our hope that a better understanding of the extreme and long-lasting effects of trauma and the resulting disabilities many veterans have experienced will lead to a larger conversation about imposing capital punishment on trauma survivors and other people with severe mental illnesses."
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