Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its Effect on the Criminal Justice System

While the film box office continues to see millions of dollars in revenue from the film American Sniper, a jury found Eddie Ray Routh guilty of the first degree murders of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield.  During the trial documentation was provided that Routh was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) and schizophrenia.  PTSD is a mental condition that is documented to occur to individuals who have experienced grave events including rape, death, or some sort of near death experienced. Because of the violent nature of war it is well documented that military service members may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder upon returning to the United States, which affects their abilities not only to obtain jobs, but also to maintain relationships with family and friends.  The recent return of various combat troops is resulting in increasing numbers of veterans coming back as different people, often times violent.

Statistics show that about nine percent of the current prison population is composed of veterans who suffer from PTSD.  To give these individuals a fair trial Judge Robert Russell incepted a court system wherein PTSD victims’ cases are reviewed in a similar fashion to drug courts.  These courts tend to be more lenient than typical courts given the understanding that these individuals are dealing with mental issues a regular court may require expert testimony on.  As such, these courts have started appearing across the country to ensure these veterans have due process when appearing before the court.  However, not all states have created these new courts and veterans are continuously being tried before a tribunal that, while fair, does not fully comprehend the issues the defendant veteran may be facing.
Similar to the insanity defense, some courts are hesitant to believe a “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” defense for the same reasons that it is hard to prove and has the potential to be abused.  Part of the reason for this indecisive attitude by the courts is that while Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a new mental illness, research on the subject has not developed as quickly as veterans are being incarcerated.  The result of this is obvious when looking at the number of times courts have dismissed the “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” defense.  While the defendant veteran may be guilty of the crime, whether he was in control and cognizant of what he was doing is a different story.
Applying what regular tribunals have already done, the judicial system in each state should be mandated to create new court branches to deal with veterans affairs dealing specifically with PTSD.  As Judge Russell has done, and as some states have followed, giving veterans the ability to come before an understanding tribunal that has experience and background in this mental issue can make an impact on the charged defendant and his familial relationships.  While these new courts should not bend to the circumstances the defendant veteran is facing, sentencing standards should be set differently in addition to utilizing the system not for punishment, but rather rehabilitation.  With the wars in the Middle East potentially starting up again, it will be critical for the judicial system to create new ways to assist veterans with the mental problems and difficulties they face when returning from abroad.

Brian Zack
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

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