JACKSON, Georgia – In the first execution carried out in the US in 2015, last night Georgia put to death a decorated Vietnam War veteran who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness before he killed a deputy sheriff after a traffic stop in 1998.
On Tuesday, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, 66-year-old Andrew Brannan received visits from five family members, one friend and a pastor. He told reporters that he had been “in a status of slow torture” in the decade and a half since the crime, and said he was not sad to be leaving the prison.
Outside the facility, guards cordoned off one area of the wet, cold grass for anti-death penalty activists. A different section was designated for members of law enforcement who came to honor the memory of slain Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller. But the feelings on the execution between the two groups were not so clearly separated. Some in law enforcement seemed genuinely concerned about Brannan’s history as a veteran.
“There were a lot of troubling things that happened back then,” said Tom McCain, a close colleague of Dinkheller’s. “Not only did [soldiers] have to deal with the horrors of war but they came back to a country that didn’t appreciate them.” McCain added that he had “no problem” with Brannan’s execution, but he also questioned the death penalty in general. He praised Dinkheller as an officer deeply concerned about ethics in law enforcement. “I miss the hell out of him.”
That Brannan killed deputy Dinkheller 17 years ago is not disputed. A camera in the deputy’s police vehicle caught the confrontation between the two men after Dinkheller pulled Brannan over for going 98 miles an hour in his white pickup truck. The two pulled off Interstate 16 and onto a rural, tree-lined stretch of road.
In the video, the two men get out of their vehicles and initially exchange pleasantries. Dinkheller instructs Brannan to take his hands out of his pockets.
“Fuck you, goddamnit! Here I am, shoot my fu$king ass!” Brannan yells, dancing and flailing his arms in the street. “Here I am, shoot me!” he sings as he dances. Brannan rushes toward Dinkheller, and the officer orders him to step back. “I am a goddamn Vietnam veteran!” says Brannan.
The veteran then returns to his car and rummages inside of it. Dinkheller yells, “I am in fear for my life!”
Brannan emerges with a .30 caliber M1 carbine. In the ensuing shootout, Deputy Dinkheller was hit at least nine times. He left behind a young child and an expectant wife.
Brannan was found hiding in the woods the next morning, with a gunshot wound to his abdomen.
In 2000, a jury in Laurens County, a quiet region in southeast Georgia known for historical architecture and deer hunting, found Brannan guilty of malice murder and recommended the death penalty. The video was a key piece of evidence. Since then, it has been been widely shown in police academies to train cops on how routine traffic stops can spiral out of control.
But lawyers for Brannan have argued that the jury did not understand well the journey that led him to that January confrontation. It was one marked by survivor’s guilt, personal loss, isolation and increasingly severe diagnoses for mental illness following a short but intense time serving in the Vietnam War. Though several medical professionals testified at trial, Brannan’s VA psychiatrist did not. Atlanta defense attorney Joe Loveland, who did not represent Brannan at trial, said he believes the psychiatrist’s testimony, and the fact that Brannan had not taken his prescribed medications in the period leading up to the murder, should have been presented to the jury.