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Supreme Court throws out Korean war veteran's death sentence

PTSD must be considered by a jury, the justices rule for the first time in a Florida case in which murderer George Porter's own lawyer didn't know he served in the Army, earning two Purple Hearts.

December 01, 2009|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a death sentence for a decorated Korean War veteran, ruling for the first time that combat stress must be considered by a jury before it hands down the harshest punishment.

"Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as [George] Porter did," the justices said in a unanimous, unsigned opinion. "Moreover, the relevance of Porter's extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably . . . but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter." George Porter Jr. was convicted in the 1986 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her then-boyfriend in Florida during a drunken rage. But the jury that sentenced him was never told -- and his appointed lawyer did not know -- of his military service more than three decades earlier.

In the past, the high court has set aside a handful of death sentences because a defense lawyer failed to tell jurors of crucial "mitigating evidence" that probably would have persuaded them to spare his life.

Monday's decision appears to be the first in which the court has said post-traumatic stress disorder was the type of circumstance that called for leniency. It comes as thousands of U.S. soldiers are being treated for PTSD suffered as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had upheld Porter's death sentence, despite his overlooked military record. But the high court said those decisions were mistaken.

"George Porter is a veteran who was both wounded and decorated for his active participation in two major engagements during the Korean War; his combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man," the justices said.

The opinion put defense lawyers in capital cases on notice that they have a duty to look into their client's background and to tell jurors about any mitigating evidence that would call for leniency. In Porter's case, his lawyer testified later that he had only one short meeting with his client before the trial and that he did not meet with Porter's family and was unaware of his military record.

That information came to light only after Porter's conviction in the Florida state courts. When Porter's case was appealed in the federal courts, a new lawyer contacted his family, looked into his background and found new witnesses to testify for him, including his company commander from Korea.

To escape what the court called a "horrible family life" -- which included his father beating him and trying to shoot him -- Porter enlisted in the Army at 17. He was sent to fight on the front lines in Korea. Twice his division was left to hold back charging Chinese troops while the U.S. 8th Army retreated to the south. Porter's unit fought hand-to-hand combat over five days and nights at Kunu-ri.

Less than three months later, Porter's unit was cut off again from the 8th Army and forced to fight alone against a Chinese unit at Chip'yong-ni. Porter was wounded in both battles, and half of his comrades were killed or wounded. Lt. Col. Sherman Pratt testified in a post-conviction hearing that these were "very trying, horrifying experiences." Porter was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantryman Badge, along with other decorations.

Porter went AWOL after he returned to the United States. He was imprisoned but later honorably discharged, according to court documents, and never adjusted to civilian life. He suffered from nightmares, drank heavily and was prone to violent and impulsive behavior.

More than 30 years after his combat experience, Porter was charged with shooting and killing Evelyn Williams and Walter Burrows. There was little doubt of his guilt. Porter first decided to represent to himself, and then asked to plead guilty halfway through the trial. That evening, he tried to commit suicide in jail.

The Supreme Court focused only on whether Porter deserved to die or serve a life term in prison. Had the defense lawyer told jurors of Porter's life history, they would likely have spared him the death penalty, the court said.

By today's standards, Porter would have been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, the court said. It cited recent testimony before Congress from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who reported that 23% of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sought treatment through the VA had been "preliminarily diagnosed with PTSD."

The court noted that two states -- California and Minnesota -- provide a special sentencing hearing for veterans who are convicted of crimes and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Among the justices, only John Paul Stevens served in the armed forces during wartime. He was a Navy intelligence officer in the Pacific during World War II. Several others, including Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr., also served in the military.

david.savage@latimes.com

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