Death row, last stop for many US veterans

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WASHINGTON, DC: Executed in 2015 in the US state of Georgia, Andrew Brannan is one of thousands of US soldiers who serve, come home from battle with mental scars, commit murder and are put to death.

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At least 10 percent of those executed in the United States are military veterans, according to a report out Tuesday.

Alarmingly, courts hardly take into account the psychiatric conditions of the military veterans, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

A video of Brannan’s behavior when he was stopped for speeding on January 12, 1998 gives some insight into his state of mind.

In the video, taken by the dashboard camera of police officer Kyle Dinkheller, Brannan emerges from his pickup truck and starts dancing crazily, trying to provoke the officer and refusing to follow orders.

Leaving a vehicle when stopped by a police officer is forbidden in most US jurisdictions.

“Fuck you!” Brannan shouts, “I am a fucking Vietnam Veteran!”

Once back in his car, Brannan grabs a weapon. Gunfire breaks out.

Dinkheller is hit nine times and dies on the spot. Brannan, with a wound in the abdomen, gets back in his pickup.

The video is shown at police training academies.

At the trial, Brannan’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get lenient treatment based on extenuating circumstances. Decorated for his bravery, Brannan had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

From glory straight to infamy
“Given that less than seven percent of the US population are veterans, very often judges, juries, prosecutors and even defense attorneys are essentially unfamiliar with the military experience,” Art Cody, Legal Director Veterans Defense Program at the New York State Defenders Association, told Agence France-Presse.

“There may be a perfunctory acknowledgment of veteran status, but very often judicial decision makers lacks sufficient understanding of how the military background and experience has affected the veteran-defendant and the crime with which he or she is charged,” he said.

Some 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, and any were decorated soldiers before their downward spiral.

Such was the case of Robert Fisher, a Vietnam War veteran. President Lyndon Johnson awarded Fisher a Purple Heart for combat wounds he received in 1967. Thirteen years later, deeply affected by mental illness, Fisher killed his partner.

According to the DPIC report, more than 800.000 Vietnam veterans have signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Another 300,000 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans are also suffering from PTSD. Traumatic brain injuries are also common among the second group.

From one sniper to the next
The difficulties that many US combat veterans face as they rejoin civilian life was covered in Clint Eastwood’s hit movie “American Sniper” with his focus on Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US history.

Kyle was himself killed by Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine with mental problems. Routh was sentenced in February to life in prison.

His case, according to the DPIC, shows that there can be a different approach, as the prosecutor did not seek to have Routh executed.

It was a chance that John Allen Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran, never got. He was sentenced to death for 10 sniper killings, mostly in the Washington DC area, that stunned the country.

Muhammad had outfitted the trunk of an old Chevrolet to let him lie down inside and shoot at people apparently picked by chance. Nicknamed the (Washington) “Beltway Sniper” for the October 2002 shootings, Muhammad was executed in 2009.

Several experts consulted by AFP however said that traumatic experiences soldiers have had on battlefields and violence acts they commit years later are not necessarily connected.

Indeed “the data on violence among veterans with PTSD suggests that alcohol, drug misuse, or other psychological problems are more likely contributors to violence,” said Lauren Jenkins, a veterans advocate with ScoutComms, a public relations firm that supports veterans.

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