Is PTSD a Legal Defense?


September 16, 2011

Joshua Stepp admits that he murdered his 10-month-old stepdaughter. Stepp also served his country in Iraq, and returned from that war with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Should his war experiences change how he’s prosecuted and sentenced for his crime?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Stepp is one of an increasing number of veterans who are offering their PTSD as a defense in court. The defense has grown in usage as the public has increasingly focused on combat trauma, and since a landmark 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the death penalty for a Korean War vet, arguing that “combat stress must be considered by a jury before it hands down the harshest punishment.”

The Stepp case was viewed as a test of the limits of the argument. Law professor and president of the National Institute of Military Justice Elizabeth Hillman told the Times that the law is “uncertain and evolving.”

After deliberating for two days, the jury in the Stepp case told the judge that it couldn’t decide. Per California law, Judge Osmond Smith then sentenced Stepp to life without the possibility of parole.

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