Courts accepting PTSD as criminal defense

Study finds judges, juries are no more swayed by PTSD than other mental disorder claims

By Danielle Ferguson
Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Melissa Solorzano was terrified when her son told her he wanted to go into the military.

But it was his dream, so she and her husband supported him.

“There was no dissuading him,” she said in a Minnehaha County courtroom last month. “That was what he wanted to do. He was more determined than ever.”

When she spoke those words, her son, Garrett Michael Solorzano, was about to be sentenced to prison on a charge of first-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of his wife, Jennie Lee Smith-Solorzano.

Solorzano in March pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the charge, with his attorneys claiming that post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service played a role in his actions.

Still, Judge Robin Houwman sentenced him to 150 years in prison, with 70 of those years suspended, adding there was no way to know for certain if it was PTSD, substance abuse or other factors that led Solorzano to stab his wife six times in the neck and head as she slept in February 2016.

State and federal courts have more recently accepted PTSD as a method of criminal defense or claim of insanity, but that doesn’t mean judges or juries are swayed, the Argus Leader reported. A case study by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that defendants did not have more success in the court system with PTSD than with other mental disorders in insanity pleas.

“This is a failure of the system,” Solorzano’s public defender, Betsy Doyle, said at his sentencing.

Solorzano served in the military from February 2000 until his general discharge in 2012. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010. Three medical professionals who evaluated Solorzano said he had PTSD at the time of the 2016 stabbing and during their evaluations throughout the case.

The defense rooted its argument in PTSD’s power to affect almost every aspect of veterans’ lives. Doyle argued that lack of intervention and oversight by medical providers and loved ones triggered a “perfect storm” that pushed him into abusing controlled substances. Solorzano tested positive for methamphetamine and other drugs hours after the stabbing was thought to have occurred.

Prosecutor Randy Sample countered that the brutal stabbing was too heinous to be justified by “wrapping him (Solorzano) in a flag” and blaming a stress disorder. He called such a defense an insult to other veterans who suffer from post-combat trauma, summing up his argument succinctly.

“PTSD is not an excuse to slaughter your spouse,” he said.

‘He always wanted to be in the military’: Friends, family of Solorzano say honorable man was darkened by time in service

Solorzano, originally from Texas, came to South Dakota in 2012 after multiple attempts to get into Veterans Affairs hospitals closer to home were unsuccessful. He said he was told the wait time in South Dakota was much shorter than in Texas and its surrounding states.

Nearly two decades after Melissa Solorzano’s son asked her to sign for him to enlist in the military at the age of 17, she sat on a witness stand, telling a judge and courtroom of how Garrett never could have stabbed his wife had he not been traumatized by his military service, which included a deployment in Iraq.

Garrett Solorzano was energetic, smart, social and reliable, friends and family testified at the sentencing hearing in June. He was someone who would stick up for the underdog and protect the bullied.

His family noticed the changes in his attitude after his first deployment.

He started to become sullen, negative and distant. The things he saw and orders he carried out haunted him. He saw friends die and held the hands of dying soldiers. An explosive device hit a vehicle he was in, giving him a traumatic brain injury. He was prescribed a high dosage of painkillers, his mother said, and he grew increasingly withdrawn and paranoid.

That’s a common symptom of PTSD, said Summer Nelson, a clinical psychologist with the Sioux Falls Veterans Affairs hospital. Though she couldn’t speak directly about Solorzano’s case or about veterans caught in the criminal justice system, she discussed the effects of PTSD and treatment possibilities.

“Someone’s perspective on the world changes,” Nelson said. “They think of themselves or others in the world differently. They were a happy-go-lucky person before, maybe now they’re stuck in negative emotions or something, numb.”

Melissa Solorzano and her husband learned of Garrett Solorzano’s arrest through a Facebook message from Jennie Lee Smith-Solorzano’s mother, Lee Ann Julian.

“I thought, ‘That can’t be true,’” Melissa said.

Garrett Solorzano was held at the Minnehaha County Jail after his arrest. His mother said his initial conversations with her were “gibberish” and didn’t make sense. Over the two years he had been at the jail, receiving prescribed medicine under supervision, conversations with her grew more like they were before the stabbing, she said.

“(I saw) little glimmers of Garrett,” she said. “I truly, truly know with help and rehabilitation, he can be a productive member of our society.”

They aren’t dangerous: Medical experts say PTSD is not an indicator of violence, and help is available

A sample from the U.S. population that excluded combat veterans found that PTSD was associated with a 7 percent increase of violence, compared to 3 percent of a chance of increased violence among people without PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD.

The presence of violence in those with PTSD is similar to the prevalence of violence in people with other anxiety or depressive disorders, which ranges from 5 percent to 11.7 percent, the same study found.

The chance for violence is higher among those who abuse alcohol or substances, increasing by up to around 20 percent, according to the National Center for PTSD.

Jeremy Daniel, a psychiatric pharmacist who testified at Solorzano’s sentencing, said PTSD is more likely to make a veteran suicidal, not homicidal. Substance abuse disorder is more likely to make someone violent.

A Walden University study released last year looked at a sampling of about 150 veterans. The study found that PTSD was not directly linked to a veteran being involved in the criminal justice system. Criminal behavior occurs in combat veterans whether or not they have PTSD, the study said, and that could be some turning to alternative coping measures.

Alexis Velazquez-Sanchez of Watertown cited PTSD as a defense last summer while facing charges of murder and manslaughter in the death of 17-year-old Jayden Harley.

Velazquez-Sanchez, who was twice deployed twice to Iraq, claimed that his stress disorder led him to kill Harley with a .45 caliber pistol during an argument that escalated into violence.

A mental health professional countered that Velazquez-Sanchez’s psychiatric disorder “did not impair his judgment to the extent that he was incapable of knowing the wrongfulness of his act,” and he was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

Nelson pointed out that positive results are possible for veterans with PTSD. There are treatments available, and she said four to five months of regular treatment can produce significant medical improvement. Treatment from Veterans Affairs includes techniques and tools to give to veterans to continue to practice after sessions are done.

Support from friends and family is another key component, she said.

“Sometimes the perception by friends and family is that it’s just in their head and that they should just get over it,” Nelson said. “That’s not accurate. This is something where their recovery process has been interrupted and it’s not their fault. There are effective treatments. There are things that can be done to help with that. It doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”
 

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