Thursday, February 9, 2012

Marine Accused of Murdering Six Raises Questions Regarding Court’s Treatment of Combat-Induced Mental Illness

Izcoatl Ocampo, an ex-marine, is  currently charged and in custody for the brutal murders of four homeless men, and now faces additional charges in connection with the killings of fifty-three-year-old Raquel Estrada and her thirty-four-year-old son, Juan Herrera.  Orange County, California authorities reported that Estrada was stabbed over thirty times and Juan Herrera over sixty times on October 25, 2011.  Although authorities have provided no information on any evidence against Ocampo, investigators are confident that they have the man responsible for all six murders only because circumstances suggest that the murderer(s) used a similar murder weapon and technique on all six of these victims.  The minimum sentence if convicted is life in prison without parole and Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, is considering the death penalty.  However, charging an ex-marine who could be suffering from a mental illness related to his time in combat with the death penalty seems fundamentally unjust.  Further research into post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat-related psychological trauma demonstrates that the court system agrees and opts to take contextual evidence that suggests this altered mental state into account when a defendant has a history with the military.

Evidence regarding Ocampo’s culpability, particularly based on his mental state and military time--has not been fully explored.  Further research into the court’s treatment of the relationship between military service and mental state when deciding a case should be necessary.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently recognized the importance of a defendant’s military service, including his or her combat history or any related stress or mental health issues, to an effective presentation of mitigating evidence at sentencing in capital cases.  Porter v. McCollum, 130 U.S. 447 (2009).  Furthermore, in United States v. Brownfield, a federal judge used an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran’s potential PTSD as the basis of a downward departure from the federal Sentencing Guidelines—the general sentencing ranges for each crime.  Even legislatures have actively proposed legislation that directs the court systems to address mental illness of Veterans in their courts.  These actions demonstrate that courts are not only accepting, but encouraging evidence of mental illness in cases where the defendant served in the military.

Ocampo served in the marines from July 2006 until July 2010 and was deployed to Iraq for six months in 2008. His father stated that Ocampo was noticeably different after returning from combat.  He said Ocampo expressed disillusionment and demonstrated a physical condition in which his hands shook and he suffered constant headaches.  Although Ocampo initially responded to treatment, he then began drinking heavily and stopped taking medication.  Ocampo’s personal life also changed dramatically after his military service, which is evidence of additional stress that could have affected his mental health.  After Ocampo was discharged in 2010 and returned home, his parents separated.  That same month, one of Ocampo’s friends, a corporal, was killed during combat in Afghanistan.  Ocampo visited his friend's grave twice a week.  His father lost his job and lived under a bridge before finding shelter in the cab of a broken-down big-rig he is helping repair.  

Authorities currently overseeing Ocampo’s imprisonment also acknowledge his psychological issues. Ocampo is now held in isolation in an Orange County jail, wearing a protective gown, and monitored twenty-four hours a day.  Jim Amormino, Orange County Sheriff’s Department representative, Jim Amormino, even stated that Ocampo “[o]bviously…has some psychological problems just by the nature of the crimes, so [the authorities] don't want him to hurt himself.”

Even with this information, Rackauckas stated that Ocampo exhibited no signs of mental illness and he will continue to explore the possibility of a death penalty conviction.  It is comforting to know, however, that if this case ever goes to trial the court will likely consider the multitudes of evidence suggesting that Ocampo suffers from a mental illness when determining his sentence.  Although I certainly do not believe that crime should be excused, violent prison atmospheres will only deepen the psychological trauma from which the ex-soldiers suffer.  Hopefully the state legislatures will continue moving in a direction that both addresses the actions of and provides services for mentally ill individuals who commit crimes.

Amanda Giglio
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


  1. Though the courts seem to be supportive of mitigating sentences based on military service I'm not sure how practical that would be or whether it is warranted at all. Do we mitigate the sentence based on service alone, the number of years of service, they type of service, or only if there has deemed to be "trauma" associated with the veteran's service? Is this a stand-alone factor, or would the judge consider it in the aggregate of all other sentencing factors when determining whether to mitigate a sentence?

    On the mental illness side of the discussion, and disregarding the death penalty option all together, I agree it is important when sentencing to consider that given Ocampo's mental illness, exposure to prison would increase his propensity for violence and make him a danger to himself. I think it's equally as important, however, to recognize the danger he may pose to other inmates. If Ocampo's mental health condition would make him a greater threat to the other inmates, the State certainly needs to consider this in sentencing.

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