The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Steven Russell's case on Sept. 26. Russell was convicted of killing his girlfriend in 2009. (Arkansas Department of Correction / AP)
LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Lawyers for an Iraq War veteran convicted of killing his girlfriend told Arkansas’ highest court on Thursday that his case never should have gone to trial.
Steven Russell’s attorneys told the state Supreme Court that their client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and should have been found not guilty because of a mental disease or defect.
Russell, 34, was convicted of capital murder in the 2009 death of Joy Owens and was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole.
Russell’s attorneys say their client deserves a new trial. The state, meanwhile, says the court should uphold Russell’s conviction and sentence.
But even the state acknowledged that Russell’s was a sympathetic case.
“We are dealing with a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Assistant Attorney General LeeAnn Adams said Thursday. “That does not belie the fact that there is a serious criminal offense that occurred: a capital murder.”
Russell entered the military in 2001, served in Iraq and “had the dubious task of recovering bodies and equipment after they had come in contact with improvised explosive devices,” one of his lawyers, Rickey Hicks, said.
Russell was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Then, on Nov. 3, 2009, “in the middle of the night, with no apparent provocation, Mr. Russell got up and killed his girlfriend,” Hicks said.
Russell was charged with capital murder in Pulaski County, and his lawyers sought to have him undergo a mental evaluation.
Hicks said a mental health professional at the State Hospital performed that evaluation and concluded that Russell was capable of standing trial, but said Russell lacked mental capability to conform his conduct to the law and appreciate the criminality of his actions at the time.
Russell’s lawyers asked a judge to acquit him, but a judge denied their request. Meanwhile, prosecutors hired another mental health professional, who said Russell could have conformed his actions to the law, Hicks said.
“It was an abuse of the discretion on the part of the judge to allow the prosecution to go doctor shopping to find a psychologist who would agree with their position,” Hicks said Thursday.
But beyond that, Hicks said it was clear that Russell should have been acquitted and that the case never should have gone to trial.
“We believe that under the statute, the judge is tasked with the responsibility of being the gatekeeper so that the criminally insane are not sent to trial ... but rather would have an opportunity to be treated,” Hicks said.
Hicks also argued that when the jury was deliberating on a Friday at trial, the judge “invited the jury, effectively to give up their weekend for this self-professed killer and come back and work some more on Saturday.”
The jury convicted Russell a short while later.
However, some of the state’s seven justices questioned whether Russell’s lawyers brought those issues up before.
“It’s very difficult and patently unfair to reverse a trial judge on something that the trial judge was never given an opportunity to rule on,” Associate Justice Paul Danielson said on Thursday.
The justices did not indicate when they would rule on the case.