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.

More Stories

Citing War Crimes in Ukraine, International Criminal Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Putin
The court alleges there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the Russian president bears “individual criminal responsibility” for the deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
March 17, 2023
The U.S.-led Invasion of Iraq, 20 Years Later
Explore 22 FRONTLINE documentaries that chronicle the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq, its long and bloody aftermath and the enduring impact on ordinary Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. 
March 17, 2023
Former FDIC Chair on Bank Collapses, the Federal Reserve and "Potential Fragility" in the Financial System
Sheila Bair, a former top banking regulator, spoke to FRONTLINE just days after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank about the Federal Reserve, easy money and potential fragility in the financial system.
March 16, 2023
What the Fed’s Inflation-Fighting Efforts Could Mean for the U.S. Economy
Amid bank failures and concerns about economic stability, the FRONTLINE documentary 'Age of Easy Money' traces the road to this moment, and the potential consequences of the Federal Reserve's decision last year to hike interest rates to fight inflation. Watch an excerpt.
March 14, 2023