(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Korean War veteran convicted of shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend in 1986. The veteran’s attorney failed to present key evidence of his client’s heroic military service and other mitigating factors at sentencing, the court explained.
“Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines,” the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion with no dissent.
George Porter was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the fatal shootings of Evelyn Williams and Walter Burrows. He was sentenced to death for Williams’ murder, but not for Burrows’, and the Florida Supreme Court upheld his capital punishment.
Porter filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 1995, arguing that his attorney left out important mitigating evidence about his childhood abuse, his military service and the trauma he suffered as a result, his history of alcohol abuse and his impaired mental health.
The trial judge dismissed his appeal, holding that the failure to present such evidence did not significantly affect Porter’s sentencing.
Porter then took his case to a federal judge, who held that Porter’s attorney “did little, if any investigation … and failed to effectively advocate on behalf of his client before the jury.”
The 11th Circuit in Atlanta reversed, but the nation’s high court sided with Porter.
“The sum total of the mitigating evidence was inconsistent testimony about Porter’s behavior when intoxicated and testimony that Porter had a good relationship with his son,” the high court wrote.
“The judge and jury heard almost nothing that would humanize Porter or allow them to accurately gauge his moral culpability. They learned about Porter’s turbulent relationship with Williams, his crimes, and almost nothing else.
“Had Porter’s counsel been effective,” the justices added, the judge and jury “would have heard about (1) Porter’s heroic military service in two of the most critical – and horrific – battles of the Korean War, (2) his struggles to regain normality upon his return from war, (3) his childhood history of physical abuse, and (4) his brain abnormality, difficulty in reading and writing, and limited schooling.”
The justices then chided the Florida Supreme Court for discounting as “irrelevant” Porter’s military service.
“[T]he relevance of Porter’s extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions, but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter,” the ruling states.