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Marine veteran on death row says jurors should have been told more about PTSD

By BRANDI GRISSOM | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 3, 2015

To Tim Rojas, it feels like just yesterday that he and his Marine buddy, John Thuesen, were on the battlefield together, looking death in the face and trying to make sure they both got home to their families.

In reality, it's been more than a decade since they left Iraq. Rojas works at a high-powered Houston investment firm. Thuesen, though, is in a 6-by-10 solitary cell, hoping that Texas' highest criminal court will spare him from the death penalty.

"Hope is everything," Rojas said.

Thuesen, 31, has been on death row since he was convicted in 2010 of fatally shooting his girlfriend, Rachel Joiner, and her brother, Travis Joiner, in their College Station home.

In July, Brazos County District Judge Travis Bryan III agreed with Thuesen's appellate lawyers that the attorneys who defended Thuesen at trial didn't adequately inform jurors about their client's post-traumatic stress disorder after his return from combat. With more information about PTSD and its effects, Bryan said in court documents, the jurors who sentenced Thuesen to death may have decided differently. Bryan's ruling is now under review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will ultimately decide whether Thuesen should get a new trial and a chance at a lesser sentence.

Brazos County prosecutors argue the jury heard plenty of evidence about the traumatic experiences Thuesen faced, along with evidence that he had a history of acting violently toward those he claimed to care for.

The district court ruling in Thuesen's case is particularly important, his lawyers and others said, as the criminal justice system deals with an increasing number of veterans with PTSD. The National Center for PTSD and the RAND Corp. estimate that up to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience it. In 2008, The New York Times reported 121 veterans from those battlefields had been charged with killings.

911 call

In Texas, 10 of the 261 death row inmates reported some military service, according to the Department of Criminal Justice.

"Someone who has served his country, who's seen traumatic situations while serving his country, who's worked to save the lives of his fellow soldiers — that's all important for a jury to know about when they consider what the right punishment should be," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Services, a nonprofit organization that represents death row inmates.

Thuesen, who was a football player and champion turkey farmer in high school, signed up to be a Marine before he graduated. When he returned to his rural Texas home near College Station, his family and friends said, he had changed.

He was depressed and drank too much. A former girlfriend testified at his trial that he was violent with her. After an attempted suicide, Thuesen was briefly hospitalized, but despite his family's concerns that he needed more treatment, doctors from the Veterans Administration sent him home.

About six months later, in March 2009, police responded to a 911 call from Thuesen and found him with the bullet-riddled bodies of Rachel and Travis Joiner. Thuesen told police he killed Rachel, a track star at Texas A&M University, because he was angry. He sneaked into her house while she was out and waited for hours, jealously stewing about time she spent with someone else. When her brother, also an A&M student, came to her aid, Thuesen shot him, too.

At his 2010 trial, jurors were told that Thuesen had lost a Marine buddy. They knew he had seen a young boy splattered with his family's blood after Thuesen's Marine unit sprayed their car with bullets as it hurtled through a military checkpoint. But, his lawyers argue, the jurors didn't hear expert testimony that could have helped them understand the lasting effects of PTSD.

Had jurors been presented with such expert testimony, "they would have come to a different conclusion," said Cathryn Crawford, who served as special litigation counsel in Thuesen's appeal.

Exclusion?

Lisa Jaycox, a senior behavioral health scientist with RAND, said violent behavior isn't a hallmark of PTSD, but that the disorder can contribute to it. When those who have experienced trauma also struggle with depression and self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, she said, that often causes problems at work or in relationships. The combination can be overwhelming.

"It can therefore spiral into people having worse and worse functioning over time," Jaycox said.

Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and veteran, argued in a 2009 Fordham Law Review article that there should be a categorical exclusion from the death penalty for combat veterans who had PTSD at the time of their offenses.

Courts, he wrote, "should find that it is unconscionable for the government to sentence soldiers and veterans to death for criminal actions that would likely not have happened but for their military service."

Some prosecutors have chosen not to seek the death penalty in capital cases against veterans. Though they didn't provide a public explanation, prosecutors in Erath County declined to seek the death penalty for Eddie Ray Routh, the former Marine convicted of killing Navy SEAL and American Sniper hero Chris Kyle and another man. Routh, who was sentenced to life without parole, had a history of mental health problems, and PTSD played a key role in his defense.

Complex disorder

Prosecutors in Brazos County have argued that Thuesen had a history of acting violently when he was angry. They told Bryan that the former Marine's trial lawyers gave jurors all the information needed to understand Thuesen's past. Jessica Escue, an assistant district attorney, said the defense did an "admirable" job, and that prosecutors will ask the Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Thuesen's death sentence.

Rojas, Thuesen's friend, agrees with prosecutors on one point:

"PTSD is not some sort of allowance to do bad things," he said. He added, though, that Thuesen doesn't deserve to die. The disorder, he said, "impacts veterans in a unique way that causes horrific situations."

Follow Brandi Grissom on Twitter at @brandigrissom.
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John Thuesen
COURTESY OF THE TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE

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