May 6th, 2012
06:21 AM ET

Wartime stress as a defense for murder

By Chris Lawrence and Jennifer Rizzo

Raymond Williams had just retired and was looking forward to traveling out west with his wife and spending time with his three grandchildren. But all those plans were shattered on April 6, 2009. As Williams, 64, went to get the mail on that spring day, he was gunned down by a man he'd never met.

His wife found his body.

"She said, you know 'Matt! Matt! Somebody shot Dad,'" recalled Williams' son, Matt. "It didn't register. I'm thinking, 'OK where is he now? Did they take him to the hospital? What hospital is he in?' And before I could even get another word out, she goes 'And he's dead.'"

A short time earlier, the same gunman had killed a teenager and wounded a woman at a store in the same working-class town of Altoona in central Pennsylvania.

The gunman, Nicholas Horner, was a husband, a father, and a veteran soldier who had been awarded multiple medals for his service in Iraq, including a combat action badge. Less than a year after returning from combat, Horner faced two first degree murder charges and the possibility of the death penalty.

"Not in a million years could I believe this was true because Nick would never, he could never hurt anyone," said Horner's mother, Karen. "I know Nick. Nick pulled the trigger, but that wasn't Nick."

After he returned from Iraq, Horner was a different person, his mother said. He barely left his home and, oftentimes, his wife would find him crying in the corner of the basement.

"He wasn't my little boy anymore," said Karen Horner. "You could see in his eyes, he had seen things and done things that probably none of us should ever see."

There was no question that Horner had committed the crime, and his attorney would not argue otherwise. The question was whether Horner was to blame.

"I argued to the jury in my opening (statement), I said I believe that the Iraq war came home that day," said defense attorney Tom Dickey.

Horner was one of the thousands of soldiers and veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. In total the military says 90,000 currently serving troops who fought in those wars were diagnosed with PTSD. The number from the Veterans Administration is well over 200,000.

After a decade of combat, PTSD is being used as a criminal defense in the courtroom. Horner's case would test whether this combat-related illness could be accepted as a defense for murder.

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Filed under: Legal • Military
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. John Lacher

    I am a Vietnam veteran. I served with a combat unit from October 1968 to November 1969 with the 1st Cavalry Division.

    PTSD is just an excuse. I experienced far worse combat. I never had PTSD.

    May 12, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
  2. Evil Socialist

    Thank you for your 'service'.

    May 6, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply

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