LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ highest court on Thursday upheld the capital murder conviction of an Iraq War veteran convicted of killing his girlfriend.
Steven Russell, 34, was convicted in the 2009 death of Joy Owens and was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole.
Russell’s lawyers argued that their client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and should have been found not guilty because of a mental disease or defect. But the state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected their arguments and upheld his conviction, saying that a lower court properly used its discretion when faced with conflicting forensic evaluations about Russell’s mental health.
During oral arguments last week, even the state said Russell’s case inspired sympathy.
“We are dealing with a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Assistant Attorney General LeeAnn Adams said on Sept. 26. “That does not belie the fact that there is a serious criminal offense that occurred: a capital murder.”
Russell entered the military in 2001, served in Iraq and “had the dubious task of recovering bodies and equipment after they had come in contact with improvised explosive devices,” one of his lawyers, Rickey Hicks, said last week.
Russell was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Then, on Nov. 3, 2009, “in the middle of the night, with no apparent provocation, Mr. Russell got up and killed his girlfriend,” Hicks said.
Russell was charged with capital murder in Pulaski County, and his lawyers sought to have him undergo a mental evaluation.
Hicks said a mental health professional at the Arkansas State Hospital performed that evaluation and concluded that Russell was capable of standing trial, but said Russell lacked the mental capability to conform his conduct to the law and appreciate the criminality of his actions at the time.
Russell’s lawyers asked a judge to acquit him, but a judge denied their request. Meanwhile, prosecutors hired another mental health professional, who said Russell could have conformed his actions to the law, Hicks said. Russell’s lawyers also consulted another mental health professional who agreed with the doctor at the Arkansas State Hospital.
“It was an abuse of the discretion on the part of the judge to allow the prosecution to go doctor shopping to find a psychologist who would agree with their position,” Hicks said last week.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the judge was confronted was conflicting forensic evaluations.
While two mental health professionals “found that Russell lacked capacity as a result of mental disease or defect to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law or to appreciate the criminality of his conduct, the court also had before it (another doctor’s) opinion to the contrary,” Associate Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote in Thursday’s opinion.
Hicks didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment. A spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said the office is pleased with the court’s decision.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.
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