One of the first Iraq veterans in the U.S. — and the first in Oregon — to successfully claim post-traumatic stress disorder as a defense for murder was sentenced to the Oregon State Hospital on Monday instead of a nationally recognized veterans treatment center.
Judge William D. Cramer Jr. placed Jessie Bratcher, 27, under the supervision of the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board for life. He recommended that the board consider sending the Iraq veteran to a special Los Angeles facility, but not before making its own evaluation.
Bratcher was facing 25 years in prison for the 2008 murder of Jose Ceja Medina when a Grant County jury found him guilty but insane due to PTSD in October. The former Oregon Army National Guard soldier was being treated and compensated for disabilities from his service in Iraq, mostly for PTSD, when he shot an unarmed man during a war flashback.
The case is at the leading edge of courts considering war experience as a mitigating factor. Last week, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that, in death penalty cases involving veterans, lawyers must present evidence of PTSD from military service.
“That was a huge step, coming from the Supreme Court,” said National Veterans Foundation President Shad Meshad. “But it’s just one step. We’re going to have one of these PTSD cases after another, and the question for the military and the Department of Defense is, ‘How do we prevent it, and how do we deal with it once it’s there?'”
In rural Grant County, Monday’s hearing ended a 16-month ordeal around the first murder in John Day since 1992. In an emotional sentencing, the judge thanked Bratcher for his military service and the service of his fellow soldiers.
“But in undertaking to become a soldier and protect this country, you brought violence into this community,” Cramer said. “Mr. Medina was a father, a brother, a son, a friend, and now he’s dead and will never be able to fulfill those roles again.”
Prosecutor Ryan Joslin, who had argued Bratcher was feigning or exaggerating his symptoms, said the sentencing went as he hoped.
Public defender Markku Sario had asked that Bratcher be sentenced to three years in New Directions, a residential treatment center he likened to a medium-security prison on the grounds of the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus. More than 14,000 veterans have received care at New Directions, founded 17 years ago by a Vietnam veteran and convicted felon.
Bratcher would be sentenced there under a plan developed by veteran sociologist William “Bud” Brown and would undergo PTSD treatment, job training and substance abuse treatment with other veterans.
“Thousands of veterans are watching to see if we do this right or veteran needs are being ignored,” Sario said.
On Aug. 16, 2008, Bratcher bought a gun at a local hardware store and went to Ceja Medina’s home after Bratcher’s pregnant fiancée, Celena Davis, said that Ceja Medina had raped her. She said that the baby she was carrying might not be Bratcher’s. Bratcher called Ceja Medina into his front yard and shot him repeatedly in the back, buttocks and head.
The court never considered whether the rape claim was true. Davis married Bratcher three weeks after the killing in the Grant County jail, where he has been held since the crime. She sat in the front row Monday with their daughter, Nevaeh.
Defense witness Robert Stanulis, a forensic psychologist, said that Bratcher has not received adequate treatment for his PTSD and would benefit from the intense, highly rigid California program, where he would be with other vets. He said Bratcher’s flashback was triggered by the stress around the rape allegation, and the psychologist did not expect the flashbacks to recur.
But the judge recalled testimony that Bratcher had another flashback when a psychologist touched his shoulder — in the safety of the jail.
“That scares me, Mr. Bratcher, and I don’t think you are safe to be in the community.”
Bratcher, who did not testify during his October trial, spoke briefly. Dressed in a pale blue shirt and tie, with his hair in a military buzz cut, he apologized to “my family, the Medina family, my county, state and nation.”
“I wouldn’t have made it through incarceration without my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I can only hope the Lord’s will be done,” he said.
Ceja Medina, whose brother was murdered by Bratcher, reacts to the sentencing. Judge William D. Cramer Jr. acknowledged the family’s grief: “It was a horrific event that will trouble me for the rest of my life.”
Victim’s family grieves
Ceja Medina’s parents, who listened to the proceedings with the help of a Spanish interpreter, declined to speak, but they visibly recoiled when a witness testified to the upbeat, hopeful nature of the Los Angeles treatment program. And both mother and father wept when the judge described their son. Family members told The Oregonian they considered moving after the verdict, but later found community support for their grief.
The victim’s former wife and mother of his three young children, Deangela Dobson, told the court the killing “has devastated my children … they have anger issues. My son is lost without his dad. He dreams of his dad. He asks, ‘How could someone take his life?'”
Deangela Dobson (front), the mother of Jose Ceja Medina’s three children, ages 6, 7 and 10, listens during Jessie Bratcher’s sentencing Monday. She told the court, “I am left alone to raise these devastated babies.
“Once Bratcher is evaluated at the hospital, the five-member psychiatric board will decide whether to keep him there, send him to a community program such as New Directions, or send him home under supervision.
The members, appointed by the governor, are responsible for 745 people in Oregon, 368 of whom live in the state hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Patricia Feeny. The remainder have been conditionally released to group homes, treatment facilities and foster homes in their communities. About 25 percent live alone or with their families. All are under some kind of supervision.
In the past decade, 12 people out of more than 1,200 on conditional releases have been charged with committing new felonies, a recidivism rate of 2.2 percent, compared with a Department of Corrections rate of 31.4 percent, Feeny said.
New Directions has a zero recidivism rate, said Sario, who also said that placing Bratcher there would incur no state cost, saving nearly half a million dollars over three years. He also said there is no specific PTSD treatment at the state hospital.
Feeny said that though the hospital does not have a PTSD unit, “This treatment is offered on an individual basis by every unit in the hospital.”