Should Veterans With PTSD Be Exempt From the Death Penalty?

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by Iulia Filip

 

On January 12, 1998, Andrew Brannan was driving his truck at 98 miles an hour on a country road near his Dublin, Georgia, home when he was pulled over by Deputy Kyle Dinkheller. Brannan, a white-haired, 66-year-old man, got out of his truck, shouted profanities, and danced around, yelling, “Here I am, here I am … [s]hoot me.” He then attacked the deputy and a gunfight ensued, in which Brannan shot Dinkheller nine times with a rifle.

Video footage from the deputy’s dashboard camera inflamed public opinion. Dinkheller was 22 years old and married, with one child and another baby on the way. Brannan received a death sentence and, on January 13, became the first person executed in 2015. But Joseph Loveland, an Atlanta-based attorney who tried to commute Brannan’s sentence to life imprisonment without parole, says the jury and sentencing judge never heard the whole story.

“Every doctor who had examined Andrew confirmed that he was suffering for years before the crime from significant PTSD that was directly related to his service in Vietnam, and also suffered from bipolar disorder,” Loveland said in an interview. “The two conditions interacted, leading to the crime he committed.”

Before he made headlines as a convicted murderer, Brannan was a decorated combat veteran struggling to hold his life together. He volunteered for service in the army in 1968 and trained as a parachutist. In 1970, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he served as a forward observer in an artillery unit. Brannan twice assumed command of his unit when the commanding officer was killed, and was awarded the Bronze Star and two Army Commendation medals for outstanding service. He was honorably discharged from active duty in 1971, and served in the reserves for several years.

After his discharge, Brannan tried to reintegrate to civilian life. But by the early 1980s, he began to experience severe psychological and emotional problems. He had a hard time keeping a job and his marriage fell apart. He sought treatment from the Veterans Administration (VA), which declared him partially disabled due to service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

PTSD is a severe mental disorder that can affect intellectual and adaptive functioning, trigger flashbacks to traumatic events, and impair one’s judgment. As its name implies, it can develop after exposure to a life-threatening event. Brannan’s case isn’t an isolated one: About 20 percent of military personnel who served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and up to 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans have experienced it in their lifetimes, according to National Center for PTSD statistics.

Brannan was hospitalized several times and admitted into the VA’s intensive PTSD treatment program. In 1991, the VA found he was 100 percent disabled due to service-connected PTSD. His VA psychiatrist, William Boyer, also diagnosed him with bipolar disorder in 1996. According to his doctors, Brannan withdrew from society, only had contact with other Vietnam War vets, and lived in a shack resembling a war-zone bunker.

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