Joseph Thornton: Former Florida Death Row doctor with a Veterans’ Day message

Vector illustration of a man lock up in prison

Did you know that 18-percent of Florida’s death row is made up of veterans of our military services?

It is an important fact as we prepare to honor those who have served our country this Veterans Day. I have learned from firsthand experience that veterans sentenced to death can help us all to understand some of the failures of Florida’s death penalty, as well as how to improve our justice system overall.

I am a psychiatrist trained at Stanford University with more than 30-years of clinical experience, including 3-years overseeing medical and psychiatric care on Florida’s Death Row.

In our system, for a conviction and execution, a defendant must meet a legal standard of competency at the time of at the time of the crime, during the trial, through the appeals, and right up to the execution. However, even cases where guilt is certain, we cannot be 100-percent certain of mental capacity, yet an execution is a 100-percent final.

There is a better way.

We can learn from veterans and their experience in the criminal justice system.

Take the case of Michael Lambrix, who was executed by the state of Florida last month. Lambrix served in the Army and was honorably discharged after becoming disabled in a training accident. He became involved with drugs, was arrested for murder in 1983, sentenced to death and executed 33-years later.

Patrick Hannon, who was executed by Florida this week, had extensive drug use while in the military. However, neither of these men had the benefit of current intervention tactics deployed by the Veteran’s Administration to care for veterans with a history of trauma and drug abuse.

In response to the growing needs of veterans suffering from trauma and drug use, in 2008 the Veterans Health System established the Veterans Justice Initiative.

Florida now has 2 dozen Veteran Treatment Courts. While under the supervision of these courts the veterans must attend treatment for indicated conditions such a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse. For those with substance use disorders there is periodic mandatory urine drug testing. The objective is rehabilitation and successful adjustment to the community rather than incarceration.

If we truly want to honor those who have served in our military this Veterans’ Day, then we should expand the number of veterans’ courts and the services they provide.

We should also urge the governor to place a moratorium on executions, and not just those of veterans, but everyone on Florida’s death row.

The fact is, almost all of them experienced childhood trauma, drug use and more. The time and money Florida spends on the death penalty can be much better spent on more mental health treatment services, especially for military veterans, who deserve better treatment after sacrificing so much for our country.


Dr. Joseph Thornton is a psychiatrist with the North Florida-South Georgia Veterans Health System. From 2003 to 2010 Dr. Thornton served as the medical executive director of the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center a maximum security forensic mental health treatment facility in Gainesville. Before that he was the Medical Executive Director at Union Correctional Institution.

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  • Dorothee Custer

    November 11, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    It is so good to hear you say these things. Our monthly executions are insane. For less money these people could receive decent medical care!

  • doug UK

    November 12, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Seems to be that veterans are not that well supported when they leave the cradle of the army, which housed and fed them in some sort of co-dependant relationship. I wonder if you would put down your dog with a lethal injection, or a loved one for Euthanasia. I take it for granted that Americans love to masturbate over execution as it is one of their fetishes, like the victim dancing around in an electric chair. Sure the USA has abandoned the moral high ground, it just seems a little diseased esp when you consider also holding onto the Christian faith. If you were putting down a villain, you would be humane (what would Jesus do?) My faith says that there is a little bit of god in everyone, so these executions are you throwing another stone at Jesus or using it to hammer a nail into his wrists. If you are going to p1ss all over gods creation, how do you think that is going to go down well in the after life? It is easy to blacken the persons name, making out that they are a demon being sent back to hell and god will kiss you for it (god does not need your help – ihe is watching the choices you take). So you have to ask who on earth would you join the army if you had a choice – yet are 18% of society veterans?
    Why live country where no cop has been taken to task for their executions on the streets? No cop has ever been executed for killing a black man.
    As for your mass killings that are gun based, just wonder how many innocents have to die next time 100, 200? But this is ok, if they killed a few hundred people in a movie house with a fire bomb, that would be bad, but if they use a machine gun that is ok. The recent killings in a church, was blamed on mental health issues, not the mechanization he used to end life. If mental health is an issue, why is health care not free? So you cant use that excuse, so it must the mechanization of killing – that the founding fathers did not have when all they had were muskets. So as an observer I just wonder when enough is enough for you guys, what kind of country do you want to live in, why Canada is so different to America? Needless to say I wont be visiting the US any time soon as it is not a safe or decent place :/

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