The PTSD defense for rape

An Italian court reduces U.S. soldier's sentence on the grounds that war made him "less sensitive to the suffering of others."

Published March 8, 2006 9:17PM (EST)

Via Pandagon (second story in post, but the first one's a doozy, too): We know that post-traumatic stress disorder can make one homicidal, suicidal, trigger-happy or just plain violent. But should it excuse rape? Reuters reports that an Italian court has reduced the sentence of an American soldier convicted of raping a Nigerian woman in the town where he was stationed. While the crime would normally carry an eight-year sentence, 27-year-old James Michael Brown, who'd served as a paratrooper in Iraq, was sentenced instead to five years and eight months because of "extenuating circumstances."

Such as? Soldiers in Iraq faced "a guerrilla war against an invisible enemy, conducted using all means, to which there is still no end in sight, which is extremely wearing for the occupation troops," said the court, echoing the concerns of mental health experts about the war. "The prolonged psychological stress to which the accused was subjected and the lowered importance he ended up giving to the life and well-being of those around him can only have influenced the committing of the crimes."

According to Reuters, "Brown beat and handcuffed the woman ... He raped her vaginally and anally and left her to wander the streets naked in search of help."

Brown is currently being held at a U.S. military prison in Mannheim, Germany. He may never serve even this reduced sentence, as Italian law may permit him to go back to the States pending an appeal.

Now, look. I'm no Dr. Frist, so I can't evaluate the soldier's medical condition from my iBook in New York, nor can I opine expertly on precisely what kind of violent behavior PTSD can provoke. So I can't say exactly what's right and what's wrong here, but I can say what's ironic: It has been well reported, and not just by me, that bazillions of soldiers -- for the reasons stated by this court -- are walking around (and coming home from) Iraq with PTSD. And that over there and at home, their needs are wildly underserved; they're hurting, and they're hurting others. Funny that it took an Italian court -- whether or not you agree with the reduced sentence, or suspect that this guy's lawyer cooked up his "PTSD defense" -- to acknowledge the risk these traumatized soldiers may pose. Not funny, however, that an Italian court also recently ruled that sexual assault is less serious if the gal wasn't a virgin. Nor that (while Reuters did not specify the victim's biography) Italy's got a thriving trade in young Nigerian sex workers. Perhaps, like other "nonvirgins," Nigerian women are also seen as less full-sentence-worthy?

This case also sets several tricky precedents. Would -- should -- Italy reduce the sentence of a rapist who was, say, sexually assaulted as a child (as, if I'm not mistaken, many rapists have been)? Does any soldier who has seen combat bear less responsibility for any subsequent violent actions? Plus, there's stuff we just don't know: Did the court notice that soldiers -- and civilians -- who have not parachuted into enemy territory have also committed rape? Can the court (or a physician) say for sure that were it not for the war, this fella would be an Eagle Scout?

In any regard, no conclusion here is a pretty one. We've got a new generation of sick soldiers condemned to perpetuate the violence of an unnecessary war, or we've got a new bunch of lawyers (they'll surface here, too) ready to exploit that sickness to get their clients off the hook. Or both.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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