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Considering the Toll of War in a Death Penalty Debate

By Brandi Grissom Texas Tribune - New York Times

December 27, 2013

Dennis and Patty Thuesen look through photos of their son John from his childhood and his service in the military. John, an Iraq war veteran, is appealing his death sentence for the murders of his girlfriend and her brother, Rachel and Travis Joiner, claiming that lawyers at his original trial did not adequately inform jurors about his PTSD.

The car would not stop. Flares did not stop it. Shots fired into the engine didn't stop it. Exaggerated hand gestures and hollering surely didn't. As far as the four Marines stationed at a roadside checkpoint in Iraq knew, the sedan hurtling toward them was a bomb on wheels.

Tim Rojas flashed a thumbs-up at his fellow lance corporal, John Thuesen, 21, the quiet Texan manning the machine gun on the Humvee's turret. Bullets ripped through the car. The driver slumped over the steering wheel as the sedan crawled to a stop.

There was no explosion. The Marines were alive, and in that moment, Rojas recalled, the four men felt like heroes.

Then, the car's rear door opened, and a boy, covered in his family's blood, terror all over his face, ran screaming toward them.

"It was a terrible feeling," Rojas said, his eyes glassy with tears, recalling the day that he said forever changed their lives.

That was nearly a decade ago. Now, Rojas is again standing with his buddy.

Thuesen, 30, is on death row for shooting his girlfriend and her brother in their College Station home in 2009. Thuesen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, arguing that the jury would have imposed a life sentence had it been fully informed about the damage that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause. Rojas is now talking about their ordeal, hoping it will help with his friend's appeal and bring more awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder from the battlefield.

"The engine that is your mind is going to overheat," Rojas said, "and it's going to break down." Prosecutors, however, argued that the jury had heard sufficient testimony about Thuesen's military service and his post-traumatic stress. Jurors also heard about his history of acting out in jealousy - even before his deployment. And they agreed with prosecutors that Thuesen was a cold, calculating killer who knew right from wrong when he shot the siblings and that he would continue to be a threat, even in prison.

The evidence showed that Thuesen "acts out and hurts others when he is mad or angry," prosecutors wrote in a brief responding to his appeal.

On the afternoon of March 6, 2009, Rachel Joiner, 21, returned to the home she shared with her older brother, Travis Joiner, to find Thuesen armed and waiting in her room. He had broken into their house and had been there for hours, brooding about time she had been spending with another man.

Thuesen told police that he shot Rachel Joiner, a track star and student at Texas A&M University, because he was angry. He then turned his gun on Travis Joiner, 23, an aerospace engineering student at the university, who had run to his sister's aid.

At the trial in 2010, prosecutors brought in former girlfriends who testified that they had also experienced Thuesen's jealousy. One said Thuesen stalked her; another said she had been assaulted.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor told jurors that Thuesen used the skills he honed in the military against those he claimed to love.

"We don't track people down in their homes and shoot them in the back. That is not, and it will never be, and it can never be acceptable or excusable," the Brazos County assistant district attorney, Brian Baker, said.

But Thuesen's friends and family in Bellville, where he grew up not far from College Station, saw something different. They told jurors that the man they knew before the war did not come back from Iraq. He was withdrawn, he drank heavily and there were nights, his mother, Patty Thuesen, recalled recently, when he would come into his parents' room sobbing.

"He just wasn't my John that I knew," his father, Dennis Thuesen, said.

In August 2008, Thuesen, a former football player and champion turkey farmer, checked into a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, telling doctors he was suicidal and hearing voices. Doctors monitored him for four days before releasing him with a prescription for medication and therapy.

"We wanted him to stay," Thuesen said. "The doctor looked at me and told me, 'He'll be fine.'" "I think they bear some responsibility," Thuesen said.

Drew Brookie, a Veteran Affairs spokesman, said that meeting the mental health needs of veterans was a priority but that because of privacy concerns, he could not comment about Thuesen's case.

A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.64 million military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder. The corporation also surveyed veterans and found that among those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, only 53 percent had received treatment in the previous 12 months. In January 2008, The New York Times reported 121 cases in which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with killings.

Some legal and psychiatric experts have called for the courts to exclude veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder from execution eligibility.

"The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran who faces execution by the nation he has served seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society, should take action to ensure that it does not happen," Dr. Hal Wortzel, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine, and Dr. David B. Arciniegas, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Thuesen's new lawyers argue that had his trial lawyers done a more thorough job of explaining the prevalence and long-term damage of post-traumatic stress disorder, the jury would have given him a life sentence.

Prosecutors contend that jurors had all the information they needed about Thuesen's military service, his history of troubling behavior and the way he gunned down two young students. As the courts mull Thuesen's appeals, Rojas writes occasional letters to the death row inmate who was like a brother to him in the desert battlefield. They write about the mundane things - weather, sports, family - but never about that day at the checkpoint. Still, sometimes, he said, the agony of those moments returns.

"It's so slow, but it's so thick you can't stop it," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "I wish every day that car had stopped."

Updated Sunday, February 19, 2017

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