The Sad Case of Courtney Lockhart: The Army Made Him a Killer. PTSD Made Him a Murderer. A Jury Voted for Life. A Judge Gave Him Death.
Last November, former US Army soldier and Iraq war veteran Courtney Lockhart was found guilty of murdering 18-year-old college student Lauren Burk. The Alabama jury recommended life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for Lockhart, no doubt influenced by his wartime service and the mitigating circumstances relating to severe psychological problems he suffered as a result of intense combat in Iraq. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the jury unanimously decided to spare the broken 26-year-old’s life. But a judge has nullified the jury recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death by lethal injection.
Back in November, the Daily Beast reported on the hellish existence that was Lockhart’s 16-month combat tour in the Sunni Triangle, the deadliest part of Iraq at the time he was deployed there in 2004. Incessant sniper fire and roadside bombs devastated his brigade. Firefights were a regular occurrence. Mortars crashed through the roofs of rooms he was in– not once, but twice. Sixty-four soldiers in his brigade never made it home alive, including Lockhart’s best friend. On another occasion, he had to stand by and watch as three of his buddies were burned alive when a mortar round landed inside a military vehicle. “We couldn’t do anything,” Lockhart recalled, “the fire was too hot. We just had to wait. Those guys, there was nothing left of them but their dog tags.”
Soldiers from his Ft. Carson, Colorado brigade who were lucky enough to make it home often suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ailments. But the military’s macho warrior culture and a broken Army health care system prevented them from getting the help they so desperately needed. No less than 12 soldiers from his brigade have been arrested for murder or attempted murder. One of them shot his wife five times in the face before killing himself with a shotgun.
Lockhart exhibited all the signs of PTSD. He suffered from nightmares, and to make matters worse, his Ft. Carson barracks were located by an artillery range. The explosions often sent him ducking for dear life under his bed. “I used to go to sleep looking at the ceiling thinking, ‘OK, a mortar is going to come through tonight and kill me,’” he told the Daily Beast.
To cope, Lockhart started smoking pot. But he was soon busted, and instead of recognizing that he was self-medicating to relieve his PTSD he was punished. After an altercation in which he threatened to kill two fellow soldiers, Lockhart was unceremoniously booted from the Army without the customary mental health screening.
He returned home to Alabama, where his mother says he was “shell shocked.” The nightmares continued. He carried a gun with him everywhere he went, a common occurrence among returning vets suffering from PTSD. Then one day he carjacked Lauren Burk, an 18-year-old Auburn University freshman on her way to the library to study. He forced her to drive out of town, where he told her to take off her clothes. A struggle ensued, Lockhart shot her dead, and then embarked on a dark string of armed robberies before being caught by police.
The jury who convicted Courtney Lockhart admirably decided to show leniency after hearing about his hellish days in Iraq. Of course, PTSD is no excuse for murder. But it certainly was a contributing factor that the jury rightfully considered when recommending life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. But in Alabama, unique among the 35 states that practice the state-sanctioned murder known as capital punishment, judges have the power to overturn sentencing recommendations of juries in capital cases. Shockingly, Alabama judges have done this 107 times. In 92% of those cases, jury recommendations of life imprisonment were overruled and replaced with death sentences.
One also cannot overlook the fact that this case occurred in Alabama, with a black, male perpetrator and a white, female victim.
Regardless of your position on capital punishment, the fact that judges can ignore the will of juries ought to shock the conscience of any justice-minded individual.
Courtney Lockhart was failed twice; once by the Army that turned him into a killer and then failed to take care of a wounded warrior, and then by the judge who ignored the jury’s recommendation and sentenced him to die. As David Phillipps wrote in the Daily Beast, “Lauren Burk did not deserve to die. But, given what happened, neither does Courtney Lockhart.”
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