As we prepare to honor military veterans on Wednesday, a sobering new report shows that North Carolina is one of many states that routinely condemns veterans to death and executes them, with little regard for the trauma they endured while serving our country.
Many veterans on death row suffer from PTSD, which the medical community now recognizes as a serious mental illness. Between 10 and 20 percent of veterans return from combat with PTSD. Most never commit violent crimes, but in rare cases, untreated mental illness among veterans results in tragic crimes that victimize innocent people.
While these crimes deserve harsh punishment, the death penalty is intended for the “worst of the worst,” not military veterans who suffered mental wounds in battle.
Twenty-four of North Carolina’s 148 death row inmates, more than 15 percent, are military veterans. Six veterans have been executed in North Carolina in the modern era of the death penalty. All told, North Carolina juries have sentenced 37 military veterans to death since 1976.
Many of these men served their country honorably and received medals for their service. James Davis, an Army veteran who was sentenced to death in Buncombe County, was awarded four medals, including a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct Medal, while on death row. These medals belatedly recognized Davis’ honorable service during two combat tours in the jungles of Vietnam.
Nationwide, an estimated 300 military veterans are on death row, representing about 10 percent of the U.S. death row population, the report from the Death Penalty Information Center found. The first person executed this year was Andrew Brannan in Georgia, a decorated combat veteran who fought in Vietnam and returned with PTSD.
When these veterans faced death penalty trials, their service and related illnesses were often barely touched on as their lives were being weighed by juries, the report shows.
That was true for Davis, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and paranoid schizophrenia. In 1995, while in the grips of paranoia and delusions, Davis killed three people at an Asheville tool company from which he had recently been fired.
At Davis’ 1996 trial, the jury heard only limited evidence of his severe and untreated PTSD, resulting from horrific childhood abuse and combat. The jury also did not hear the full extent of the brutal combat he endured. [Read Davis’ story here.]
Despite the serious mental and physical wounds they endure, the vast majority of veterans do not commit violent crime. Those few that do deserve, at the very least, to have the full extent of their service and injuries taken into consideration. Sadly, that has often not been the case in North Carolina.