Veterans and Capital Punishment

The legacy of violence against African American veterans is reflected in the disproportionate number of veterans sentenced to death in the United States. Nationwide, 300 veterans are on death row today. About 7 percent of Americans have served in the military, but about 10 percent of people sentenced to death in the United States are veterans.118 Just as serving in the military failed to protect black veterans who fought in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, military service in Vietnam and recent conflicts fails to prevent their executions.

Robert Fisher earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, which was awarded by President Lyndon Johnson himself. Mr. Fisher is now in his late 60s and is condemned to die by execution in Pennsylvania. Though there was evidence that at the time of the crime he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his military service, no mental health expert testified at his sentencing.119

Many of the veterans sentenced to death suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses directly related to their combat service. Manny Babbit, a Marine who did two tours in Vietnam, came home with shrapnel in his skull from injuries sustained in battle. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in California. He was awarded a Purple Heart in a prison ceremony in 1998; soldiers presented the medal and saluted Corporal Babbitt; he was shackled and could not return the salute. California Senator Dianne Feinstein later introduced legislation to ban the presentation of  medals to incarcerated veterans. On May 4, 1999, Corporal Babbitt was executed after he declined his last meal and requested that the $50 allotted be given to homeless veterans.120