January 14, 2009

Insanity verdict for soldier with PTSD

Case heralded as landmark for traumatized veterans

Photos: Sargent Binkley before and after
In a potentially landmark case, a jury in the San Francisco Bay Area has acquitted a former Army captain who used a 9mm handgun to rob a pharmacy because he was addicted to painkillers.

The Santa Clara County jury found West Point graduate Sargent Binkley not guilty by reason of insanity after hearing testimony that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his military experiences in Bosnia and Honduras. Binkley is still awaiting trial for a similar robbery in nearby San Mateo County.

Armed robbers are rarely found insane when their crimes appear rational, goal-directed, and premeditated. Additionally, California law does not allow for an insanity verdict based on addiction alone.

The defense argued that Binkley was traumatized by two events -- guarding a mass grave in Bosnia and shooting a teenager during a Honduran drug raid. His father testified that he became addicted to morphine-based painkillers after dislocating his hip in Honduras while running away from an alcohol-fueled fight over a woman.

The trial featured dueling psychiatric experts who agreed that Binkley suffers from PTSD, but disagreed on whether his symptoms were of sufficient magnitude as to render him insane, or incapable of knowing right from wrong at the time of the robberies.

Dr. Jeff Gould, originally appointed by the court in adjacent San Mateo County, testified for the prosecution that Binkley's PTSD did affect his judgment but did not render him insane.

Dr. Kenneth Seeman testified for the defense that Binkley manifested symptoms of psychosis, depression, suicidality, and anxiety in addition to PTSD and was incapable of knowing right from wrong.

Prosecutor Deborah Medved challenged Seeman on why he did not render any of these diagnoses in his original report, written a year prior to testimony. In his written report, according to news reports, Seeman opined that Binkley's insanity was due to his drug addiction. In California, addiction is barred as a basis for the legal defense of insanity. Seeman responded to the prosecutor’s challenge by saying his diagnoses had evolved over the course of his two subsequent evaluation sessions with Binkley.

In another unusual twist suggesting that the jury may have been motivated at least in part by sympathy for the defendant, the pharmacist whom Binkley robbed of Percocet testified for the defense.

The case has been the subject of web sites and petition drives pleading for leniency due to Binkley's status as a veteran. A group of military veterans had regularly attended Binkley’s court hearings. "It's a great day for our veterans who have come back suffering from PTSD to now know they can receive justice," said one, Vietnam veteran and West Point graduate Alan Lubke.

Binkley had faced a minimum term of 12 years in prison. Now, he will undergo a mental health evaluation aimed at determining whether he should be psychiatrically hospitalized or ordered into outpatient treatment.

"I am expecting the doctors will determine he has regained his sanity and is no longer a danger," said defense attorney Chuck Smith. "I hope he will be released relatively soon, like within the next six months."

San Jose Mercury News coverage is here. San Francisco Chronicle coverage is here.

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