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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Vietnam vet, convicted murderer with PTSD, wins resentencing on appeal

The court found new treatments for PTSD patients warranted a modification to the vet’s near-lifelong sentence.

(CN) — A Vietnam War veteran’s 40-year murder sentence may soon be amended after a Wisconsin appeals court handed down a favorable ruling in his case on Thursday.

Robert Schueller fatally shot another man following a bar fight 20 years ago. He pleaded no contest to a second-degree intentional homicide charge in 2004, and a Wisconsin state court handed him a 40-year sentence in 2005, split between 25 years’ imprisonment and 15 years of supervised release. Schueller suffered from combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a point that “slice[d] both ways” in the sentencing court’s view.

The court found Schueller’s PTSD diagnosis “diminished” his culpability for the murder, but also concluded that a lack of effective PTSD treatments meant his potential for violent outbursts would always be a threat to the public. Sentencing judge Thomas Flugaur wanted the veteran under some form of state supervision until he was 80, at which point the judge reasoned he could no longer harm others.

Schueller contested this sentence in 2023, arguing that new PTSD treatments had successfully reduced symptom severity in many veterans who underwent them. Per an expert report attached to Schuellers’ sentence modification motion, two techniques known as cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy are the modern “gold standard” for successfully treating PTSD in veterans.

The expert report, according to the appellate court, cited a 2012 study which found 92% of patients who received cognitive processing therapy of varying lengths no longer had a PTSD diagnosis by the study’s conclusion. Courthouse News was unable to verify the existence or results of the referenced study.

Wisconsin state judge Rick Cveykus nevertheless denied Schueller’s sentence modification motion. Cveykus found Schueller’s sentence went beyond his PTSD diagnosis; instead, the judge ruled the seriousness of Schueller’s offense and the state’s desire to punish him for it were the sentence’s “controlling” objectives.

“The record is clear: the treatability of his PTSD was not highly relevant to his sentence, the brutal nature of his crime and the need to protect the public were,” state prosecutors wrote in a brief to the appellate court.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ Thursday opinion overturns Cveykus’ ruling and returns Schueller’s sentence modification motion to the lower court for further proceedings. The appellate judges found — contrary to the state’s assertion otherwise — Flugaur’s initial sentence hinged not on the need for punishment per se, but on the idea that Schueller’s PTSD symptoms would never abate.

“Had the sentencing court known that, as a result of advancements in treatments, Schueller’s PTSD might be alleviated to the point that he no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, the sentencing court might have determined that Schueller posed less of a perpetual danger to the community, and may have imposed a shorter sentence,” Wisconsin appellate judge Rachel Graham wrote in the 22-page opinion.

The state also argued in court filings that prior cases have established categorical rules for facts that cannot be considered new matters of law after a sentencing.

One is that a defendant’s response to post-sentencing mental treatment does not warrant sentence modification. The state reasoned that if a defendant’s actual post-sentencing treatment response cannot, as a rule, serve as grounds to modify their sentence, then neither can a defendant’s potential post-sentencing response.

Second, the state argued the new PTSD treatment techniques Schueller highlighted do not upend his sentence is any meaningful way. PTSD was a known mental health disorder when Flugaur sentenced Schueller, the state contended, and so the new treatments are little more than a “new appreciation” for established facts.

“New availability of treatment is not a new factor. Schueller cites no cases that have ever held that treatment for a known condition is a new factor. New treatment is, in essence, a new appreciation or expert opinion about previously known facts, and it has long been known that ‘mental health professionals will sometimes disagree on matters of diagnosis and treatment,’” state prosecutors wrote in their appellate brief, citing prior Wisconsin cases.

Further, the state claimed there was no proof Schueller would actually benefit from these new techniques. Even if they were effective in as many as 92% of patients, per the 2012 study, some number of patients — possibly including Schueller — would remain unaffected.

The appellate court waved off all of these arguments. Graham reiterated that Flugaur sentenced Schueller based on the assumption that he would always be a danger to the public, and the new treatments challenged that central assumption. Their existence does not say anything about Schueller’s potential for rehabilitation, and he is under no obligation to prove he would respond positively in order for the circuit court to reconsider his sentence. The new treatments are also completely “new facts,” Graham wrote, not merely a “new appreciation” of old ones.

“In summary, accepting the facts alleged in Schueller’s motion and supporting materials as true, they are sufficient to establish the existence of a set of facts that are highly relevant to the imposition of Schueller’s sentence, but that were not known to the sentencing court at the time of the original sentencing,” Graham wrote. ’That is, these facts, if true, establish the existence of a new factor as a matter of law.”

The appellate court softened their ruling by pointing out the circuit court could still deny Schueller a new sentence on reconsideration. It could hold an evidentiary hearing to determine if Schueller had presented convincing enough evidence to warrant sentence modification, or it could decide this new evidence still does not move the needle on the veteran’s 40-year term.

“In that circumstance, the court would then be required to issue a decision explaining its exercise of discretion, but it would not be required to hold a hearing,” Graham wrote.

Schueller’s attorney Matthew Pinix could not be reached for comment on the development.

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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