We failed him.

The first execution of 2015 happened on January 12. Georgia put to death a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had no prior criminal record, and danced around the street yelling “Shoot me!” before pulling out a rifle and killing a twenty-two-year old deputy sheriff, who had stopped him for going 98 m.p.h.

Andrew Brennan was not simply any Vietnam vet. He had been awarded two commendations and a Bronze Star for his service. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1984, and later, bipolar disorder.

No one can say what Brennan was thinking when he shot the deputy. Clearly, the demons which so often control people with mental illness had hold of him.  PTSD and bipolar disorder take prisoners, and Brennan was one.  Brennan’s attorneys argued that the jury at his trial had not been given adequate information about his military service and his mental illness. (Given that the trial happened in Georgia, perhaps the jury would not have cared in any case.*) The attorneys also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that veterans with PTSD constitute a special category of prisoners, and should be spared for that reason, an argument that the Court found unpersuasive.

What happened that day in 1998 in Laurens County was horrible, and I do not want to minimize the death of the young officer.  Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller should not have been shot.  Andrew Brennan should have received the mental health care he so clearly needed.  Dinkheller’s death was, as Brennan’s attorney said, a terrible tragedy.

Deaths involving law enforcement pose more problems than other murders. Society (or at least white, able society, to be honest) often views the shooting of an unarmed or mentally ill person as a sad but necessary event: we want our police, rightly, to be able to defend themselves. Had Dinkheller shot Brennan when he pulled out the firearm, it would have been, as the cop shows say, “a good shoot.” Hopefully, the shooting would have ignited a discussion about the treatment of veterans, and our national failure to adequately provide mental health care for those who need it.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical concerns about the death penalty in general, killing the mentally ill is repugnant.  Killing a decorated veteran whose mental illness was at least in part caused by the very service for which he was decorated verges on the grotesque.

We teach soldiers to kill.  We send them to foreign lands where killing is a necessary skill to survive. We place them in harm’s way, and subject them to the horrors of war.  We fail to give them adequate care, mental and otherwise, when they return.

And then when they turn that training on someone stateside, especially a law enforcement official, we execute them.

God forgive us.

*Yes, I know that that shows a prejudice against Georgia. I feel the same way about Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. Many people in those states think differently about the death penalty than elsewhere.

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