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Trendspotting: Veteran Criminal Sentencing

Posted in Trendspotting by Mike Sacks on December 31, 2009

The WSJ Law Blog ran a piece today detailing how a “small but growing number of judges say U.S. military veterans should be treated differently from nonveterans when they are sentenced for crimes.”

Surprisingly, the piece does not note that just several weeks ago, the Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for a Korean War veteran sentenced to death in Florida because his lawyer failed to present evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  The Court went on to give lower courts a sharp, suggestive elbowing:

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 Porter did.

Linda Greenhouse, the former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, wrote that while such lenience is honorable, the Court’s empathy may be selectively applied:

Just last month, the same nine justices, also per curiam and also unanimously, sent chills down the spine of death-penalty opponents by overturning a different federal appeals court’s grant of habeas corpus to an Ohio death-row inmate who also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel. The inmate, Robert J. Van Hook, robbed and murdered a man he picked up in a gay bar. He is also a military veteran, but one whose service was terminated because of alcohol and drug abuse. …

[T]he Supreme Court parsed the evidence that was presented and concluded that the lawyer’s decision “not to seek more” fell “well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments.” The American Bar Association standards in effect at the time of trial required no more, the opinion said.

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