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Court rejects Iraq War vet’s PTSD defense in murder case

LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an Iraq War veteran’s argument that he should have been acquitted in the fatal shooting of his girlfriend because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shooting.

The high court upheld Steven J. Russell’s capital murder conviction and sentence of life without parole in the November 2009 death of Joy Owens, 24, of North Little Rock.

Russell had argued on appeal that a Pulaski County circuit judge should have granted his lawyer’s motion that he be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

At a hearing on the motion, Dr. Ron Faupel, a psychologist for the Arkansas State Hospital, and Dr. James Moneypenny, a psychologist who evaluated Russell for the defense, both testified that Russell’s history was consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD and said they believed Russell was unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law or appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

Dr. Bradley Diner, a psychiatrist who evaluated Russell for the state, testified that he agreed that Russell met the criteria for PTSD, but he did not agree that Russell was unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law or appreciate the criminality of his conduct. Diner noted that Russell argued with Owens before the shooting and that after the shooting he contemplated suicide and drove to Burns Park in North Little Rock.

Russell argued on appeal that after the state received Faupel’s evaluation, it improperly obtained another evaluation from Diner because Faupel’s report support Russell’s defense. The state should not have had a “second bit of the apple,” Russell argued.

The Supreme Court said in its unanimous opinion Thursday that it would not consider the argument that the state should have been bound by Faupel’s evaluation because the argument was being presented for the first time. The court also said it would not overturn the circuit judge’s ruling on the motion for acquittal because it was within the judge’s discretion to weigh conflicting testimony.

Russell also argued that at one point during jury deliberations at his trial the jury said it was deadlocked, but instead of declaring a mistrial, the judge improperly invited the jury to have a night of rest and come back the next day for more deliberations, which it did.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that Russell’s trial lawyer asked for a mistrial after the jury said it was deadlocked, but it said the lawyer never stated a basis for the mistrial motion, so no argument was preserved for review.

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