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Gulf War Veteran Executed for 1995 Murder

Lawyers for Louis Jones Jr. tried to show his exposure to nerve gas and apparent brain damage led him to kill an Army recruit.

March 19, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — A decorated Gulf War veteran who blamed Iraqi nerve gas for turning him into a killer was put to death here Tuesday after President Bush declined to commute his sentence.

Louis Jones Jr. was executed by lethal injection at dawn in the federal prison at Terre Haute for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young Army recruit in Texas. Strapped into the gurney, he quoted scripture and sang a Christian hymn.

Later, his attorney read a brief statement from the 53-year-old inmate, saying, "I have always been remorseful for this heinous crime."

But the family of the victim, 19-year-old Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride of Centerville, Minn., angrily rejected the argument by Jones and his lawyer that his injuries from the Gulf War led him to kill.

"The Gulf War and Gulf War Syndrome is never an excuse to murder anybody," said her mother, Irene McBride. "If our criminal justice system made people accountable for their actions, this would stop."

Tanya Pierce, the federal prosecutor who helped convict Jones, said:

"It is an insult to the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who went over there and did their patriotic duty. They came back and are law-abiding citizens. It's an insult to those soldiers.

"And for anybody to take the situation that we are in right now, as far as what's going on with Iraq right now, and try to help a murderer and a rapist is pretty despicable."

Evidence of brain damage was presented at Jones' 1995 trial and rejected by jurors. But his lawyer, Timothy W. Floyd of Lubbock, Texas, contended he had new evidence that directly linked the damage to nerve gas exposure in the Persian Gulf. The same danger could face U.S. troops in a new Iraq war.

Jones built a stellar 22-year career in the Army, rising to the rank of master sergeant in the Airborne Rangers and serving in the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the Persian Gulf War. But he came home from the Gulf suffering from post-traumatic stress as well as brain damage that his lawyers blamed on chemical agents.

The Pentagon twice informed him, while he already was in prison, that he was among about 130,000 soldiers who apparently were exposed to low levels of nerve gas from a weapons depot destroyed during the war.

In addition, a Gulf War Syndrome expert, Dr. Robert W. Haley, director of the Southwest Medical Center at the University of Texas in Dallas, said Jones' exposure "caused brain cell damage," which was a "likely explanation for his crime."

Nevertheless, prosecutors maintained that Jones methodically carried out the killing, a sign that he knew what he was doing when he bludgeoned McBride to death.

"He beat her with nine fatal blows," prosecutor Pierce said. "He beat the tar out of her."

Justice Department officials notified Jones' lawyers Monday that Bush had declined to commute the sentence to life in prison with no parole.

Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a last-minute attempt by Floyd to stop the execution on the grounds that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional.

Jones' death at 7:08 a.m. EST marks the third federal execution in just under two years, after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Garza in 2001. They followed a four-decade hiatus in federal executions.

McBride was abducted at gunpoint in the laundry at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. She was a standout student in high school, a religious young woman and was preparing to marry a Marine.

Jones took her to his home, raped and assaulted her, then forced her to ride with him to a remote location in the west Texas countryside. He struck her over the head with a tire iron and left her body under a bridge.

Jones was arrested two weeks later and led authorities to the body.

According to Haley, Jones suffered the most severe form of Gulf War Syndrome, a malady that has many medical officials still debating its cause. But Haley said Jones also had "organic brain damage," and a blood test showed he did not have a common enzyme that might have helped his body metabolize nerve gas.

"Mr. Jones returned from the war with a noticeable change of personality, including irritability and hostility, and numerous neurological symptoms," the doctor found.

He also developed a short attention span, blurred vision, stuttering, headaches and chronic diarrhea. His family reported that he was impossible to live with. He retired from the Army but could not keep a civilian job. He began to drink heavily and soon divorced. His ex-wife recalled him being "very crazed ... panicked ... spinning out of control."

Jones spent much of his last hours Tuesday with his daughter, Barbara Jones, after eating a last meal of fresh fruit. In the execution chamber, he mouthed the words "I love you" to Floyd and several family friends.

He then quoted from the Book of Psalms: "Though the Lord hath chastened me sore, He hath not given me over unto death."

He began singing "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross," and moments later went quiet after saying, "Thank you, Jesus."

In a handwritten statement read later by Floyd, Jones said: "I take full responsibility for the pain, anguish and the suffering I caused the McBrides."

"I do think I understand, maybe, why it is you seek to end my life," he added.

Floyd decried the death penalty, saying two families now are suffering.

"It is a cruel irony that on the day that we mobilize for war in Iraq, the life of Sgt. Louis Jones Jr., a consummate soldier, was ended at the hand of the government he proudly served," Floyd said.

But the McBride family heartily thanked Bush and the Justice Department for carrying through with the execution.

"Today was a day of justice for Tracie," said the victim's mother. "Today, Louis Jones was finally made accountable for his actions, and today he will meet his ultimate judge."

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