SALEM – Jessie Bratcher, whose conviction in 2009 aimed a national spotlight on PTSD as a criminal defense for murder, is up for possible release from the Oregon State Hospital later this month.

The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board is scheduled to hold a hearing on Bratcher’s status Jan. 29 at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

The hearing was requested by the state hospital, according to Juliet Follansbee, executive director of the review board.

At issue is whether Bratcher still meets the criteria for the board’s jurisdiction. The board’s authority hinges on whether a patient has a mental illness – in this case, post-traumatic stress disorder – and when that illness is active, poses a danger to himself or the community.

Bratcher has been at the state mental hospital since his trial for gunning down an unarmed man – 32-year-old Jose Ceja Medina – in the yard of his Elm Street home in John Day on Aug. 16, 2008.

The verdict in 2009

At trial in Grant County Circuit Court, the defense said the killing occurred in a PTSD-triggered flashback to Bratcher’s military service in Iraq. Defense witnesses said he had “raging PTSD” and that wartime violence, including a roadside bomb explosion, had changed him from a peacemaker to a volatile, reclusive young man.

The prosecution saw the killing as a deliberate act, triggered by jealousy and anger after his pregnant girlfriend, now his wife, claimed Ceja Medina had fathered her child. The couple didn’t report her rape accusation to authorities, and the claim was deemed immaterial at the murder trial.

Testimony focused on PTSD, with the defense producing evidence of Bratcher’s diagnosis by the VA and state hospital professionals. The jury found Bratcher guilty except for insanity; it was the first time PTSD had been used successfully to mitigate a murder conviction.

Circuit Judge William D. Cramer Jr. sentenced Bratcher to the supervision of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, and ordered him confined to the state’s psychiatric hospital for treatment.

Grant County District Attorney Ryan Joslin said last week that although the sentence was described as a life term, the complexities of the insanity finding promised far less than that. The review board’s jurisdiction continues for life only as long as the mental illness still exists and it poses risk to the person or community, he noted.

“I always thought he’d be out in three years, and I said that at the time,” Joslin said.

Sides prep for hearing

Joslin plans to attend the hearing in Salem, although a Department of Justice attorney will represent the state’s position.

Markku Sario, the defense attorney, will represent Bratcher at the hearing and argue for his release.

He said the state hospital’s psychiatrist and a defense psychologist both say Bratcher no longer has PTSD. A risk assessment doctor for the hospital stops short of that, but says the PTSD is in remission.

Sario said he doubts the board will keep Bratcher at the state hospital. The more likely choice, he said, is between releasing him to a non-secure facility for continued treatment or just releasing him without further supervision.

Sario wants the latter.

“He is not in the hospital for punishment, he is there to get treatment,” Sario said. “People do get cured, or gain insights for dealing with their illness.”

He said Bratcher has had counseling for anger management, stress relief and other issues at the hospital, and hasn’t had any PTSD incidents in his time there. He has not been on any psychotropic medications.

Bratcher has refused the district attorney’s request for re-evaluation by Richard Hulteng, the psychologist who testified for the prosecution at the trial and raised doubts about the PTSD diagnosis.

Victim's relatives protest

The Jan. 29 hearing also will allow statements from the family of the victim.

Sarah Ceja, sister-in-law of Jose, said the family is unhappy, even angry, at the prospect of Bratcher’s release.

“You can kill someone and say you have PTSD, and then you get out in less than five years? What is this telling our community? What is this telling our young people?” she said.

In a statement, the family said this is the second time Bratcher’s release has been proposed by the state hospital. They said in 2012, the hospital staff contended he was no longer a danger to the community, and acknowledged he was no longer in counseling or on medication.

“Instead he was filling his days with other activities such as yoga, studying and attending the sweat lodge,” the statement said. “They shared information about how well Bratcher interacts with peers and staff, and what an upstanding young man he is.

“Meanwhile Jose Ceja can never tell a story again. He cannot hug his family … he is dead.”

Sarah Ceja said the family will fight Bratcher’s release, but they know it’s an uphill battle.

“It is possible that Jessie Bratcher may walk out of the Oregon State Hospital on that same date a completely free man,” the family statement said. "What will he do next time he is mad about his life? Where will he go when he feels irritable and angry over some life’s stressor? Who will be in harm’s way?”

Sario said he’d be more concerned about the safety of Bratcher. Sario said he doesn’t think Bratcher would move back to Grant County, but would seek a new start in another community.

Sario also believes Bratcher can handle an unstructured situation now. He said the year in jail awaiting trial and four years in the state hospital have calmed him.

Meanwhile, the woman who married Bratcher while he was in the county jail has no intention of reconciling with him. Family members said she has moved on with her life, and she filed for divorce last year in Grant County Circuit Court.

Joslin remains troubled by the way the case played out.

“I believe he scammed the system,” Joslin said, adding he believes it’s possible Bratcher never had PTSD. “It worked. It was an effective defense.”

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