Supreme Court Rules PTSD is a Defense to Death Penalty

In a recent opinion, Porter v. McCollum, the US Supreme Court sent back the death penalty sentence of a Korean War veteran, Mr. Porter, to the Eleventh Circuit Court.  The Supreme Court found that Mr. Porter’s legal counsel was insufficient because the lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence, including the effects of Mr. Port’s combat service.  It concluded that had the sentencing judge and jury been told of Mr. Porter’s war time trauma and other information regarding his mental problems, they likely would have spared him a death sentence.  Mr. Porter was previously convicted of murdering his former girlfriend and her boyfriend. 

During his service, Mr. Porter engaged in combat with Chinese troops on the front lines in Korea, and his military decorations include two Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantry Badge.  The Supreme Court stated that effective counsel would have presented evidence that would “humanize” Mr. Porter or allow the sentencing judge and jury “to accurately gauge his moral culpability”, to include: “(1) Porter’s heroic military service in two of the most critical – and horrific – battles of the Korean War, (2) his struggles to regain normality upon his return from war . . .”

It is unclear from the decision – an unsigned opinion made without full briefing or hearing – whether the ruling will have a direct impact on other criminal cases where combat stress also is a factor. 

However, the opinion is already receiving significant attention in the legal community and beyond.  At minimum, it puts defense lawyers on notice that they should be ready to present argument of combat-related PTSD, when applicable, as evidence supportive of leniency in sentencing. 

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