Vietnam veteran on death row gets reprieve as Florida debates stress disorder

February 07, 1993|By Martin Merzer and Phil Long | Martin Merzer and Phil Long,Knight-Ridder News Service

The crime was brutal, sudden and deadly -- a shotgun blast killing a grandfatherly store clerk, "the sweetest, best-thought-of man you'd ever know."

The court case was long and troubling -- a Vietnam veteran, suffering from war-induced psychological trauma, sentenced to death just before his condition became legally recognized.

And today, nearly 13 years after a crime that seems to victimize everyone who touches it, the decision confronting Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles is tangled with legal and moral questions:

Does Mr. Chiles follow the letter of the law and allow Larry Joe Johnson to die for a murder everyone agrees Johnson committed, or does Mr. Chiles follow what some call the spirit of the law and order a new clemency hearing to reconsider Johnson's mental condition?

"The governor's concern is that justice is carried out," Ron Sachs, Mr. Chiles' chief spokesman, said last week. "He believes it is best to be cautious."

The Florida Supreme Court denied Johnson's appeal on narrow legal issues, but in a highly unusual commentary Friday expressed sympathy for his plight. The court said Florida could be executing a man psychologically maimed while serving his country.

On Tuesday, Mr. Chiles rescinded the death warrant he already had signed -- the first stay of execution he has issued and the first by any Florida governor in many years. That gives state lawyers time to study disquieting issues raised by the case and report to Mr. Chiles.

The stay of execution encouraged Johnson's growing legion of supporters, enraged his prosecutor and pained the family of Johnson's victim -- James Hadden, a 67-year-old part-time service station clerk.

Jan Smith, Mr. Hadden's only child, said the stay of execution came "out of the blue, a surprise, a sad, sad surprise."

"There is no way I can fully express how sickened I am," she said. "It is so upsetting because I was so built up, not for revenge, but for justice and, once and for all, to finally get over this so we can go on with our lives."

Said State's Attorney Jerry Blair, who prosecuted the case:

"There isn't one single fact new today that wasn't known and discussed over and over. Why is this happening? You just wonder what is going on in our system of justice."

Mr. Blair, a Vietnam veteran himself, does not buy the argument that Johnson's psychological war trauma -- now a widely recognized condition called post-traumatic stress disorder -- contributed to the crime.

"Johnson's use of PTSD as an excuse is demeaning to the thousands of veterans who went to Vietnam and didn't come back and rob and murder someone," Mr. Blair said.

But many Vietnam veterans, including some who support the death penalty in general, have rallied to Johnson's defense.

"It's sort of like his body survived Vietnam but his mind didn't, and now they are trying to put his body where his mind is," said Scott Camil, a Vietnam veterans' activist from Gainesville, Fla.

"Society has a right to be protected from him, but his honorable service and the condition that resulted from that service should count for something."

Those associated with Johnson's defense are not seeking his release; they would be satisfied if the sentence were commuted to life in prison and he got treatment for his condition.

Most facts of the case are not in dispute: On March 16, 1979, Johnson and a 17-year-old female companion robbed a service station-convenience store in Lee, Fla., in Madison County, a rural county on the Georgia state line.

Mr. Hadden, a retired cattle rancher, had taken the part-time job to ward off boredom. He was unarmed. Johnson shot him with a sawed-off shotgun and got less than $150.

"The governor doesn't understand the pain of the victims and their families," said Ms. Smith. "My mother died of cancer four years ago. I'm sure the cancer was made worse because of the hurt and the worry over the loss of my father.

"She never got to see justice done."

She called her father "the sweetest, best-thought-of man you'd ever know."

Psychological trauma experts have testified that Johnson had a severe form of the disorder when he committed the crime, and they expressed satisfaction over Mr. Chiles' action.

"I'm just ecstatic," Dr. David Niles, a Vietnam veteran and one of Johnson's psychologists, said last week. "I'm very happy that rationality seems to be taking over at this point, but we're not out of the woods yet."

Dr. Niles and Johnson's other advocates maintain that he would not be sentenced to death if his trial were held today.

Shortly after Johnson was sentenced on Jan. 3, 1980, the medical and legal communities began accepting post-traumatic stress disorder as a legitimate psychological condition that could have mitigating effects on sentencing.

During his trial, however, it was considered just a theory. The sentencing judge apparently did not take it into consideration.

Now, as many as 800,000 Vietnam veterans are believed to suffer from the syndrome, which can include anxiety, flashbacks and exaggerated responses to perceived threats.

And, during Johnson's 15 months of service doing construction in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee, he had been exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide that can cause severe physical and emotional damage.

In 1974, years after returning from Vietnam and joining a National Guard unit back in his hometown of Owensboro, Ky., Johnson was injured by a smoke grenade during training.

Doctors testified at a clemency hearing last year that the incident intensified his condition.

He was on parole at the time of the Hadden murder, convicted of second-degree assault after shooting his wife.

Johnson said he shot Mr. Hadden when startled by the victim's sudden movement. But Johnson's companion quoted him as saying, "Dead witnesses don't talk."

Prosecutors cited that as evidence of premeditation and a basis for the death sentence. Defense attorneys and psychologists said Johnson might have been rationalizing behavior he could not otherwise explain.

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