Should Louis Jones Die?

One night eight years ago, former Special Forces soldier Louis Jones Jr. stole onto a military base in San Angelo, Texas. He was looking for his estranged wife, also an Army officer, with whom he had violently fought earlier in the week. Instead of his wife, he found Pvt. Tracie McBride.

He forced McBride, at gunpoint, to leave the base and, after raping her in his apartment, took her to a desolate area 30 miles outside of town where he beat her over the head with a tire iron until she was dead. He left her body under a bridge. Tracie McBride was 19 years old.

Unless President George W. Bush intervenes, Jones will be executed on March 18 for the rape and murder of McBride. He will be the third person--after Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Garza--put to death by the federal government since 1963. (Because he kidnapped McBride from an Air Force base, his case was a federal crime.) Jones, currently awaiting execution in Terre Haute, Ind., has exhausted all of his appeals. His only recourse now lies with the president. Jones' attorney has asked Bush to commute his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prisoners seeking clemency from the White House are hardly unusual. But the Jones case is. Jones served in the 1991 gulf war, and his attorney argues that Jones suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, the name given to a mysterious group of symptoms and illnesses afflicting more than 100,000 American soldiers who fought in the conflict. According to an expert consulted by the defense, Gulf War Syndrome is characterized by damage to the region of the brain regulating mood, emotions, impulse control and other factors that could explain Jones' violent behavior the night he killed McBride.

As an Army Airborne Ranger, Jones participated in the invasion of Grenada. He led his platoon in a dangerous combat jump onto the island in the face of enemy fire. During the gulf war, he participated in the ground attack on Iraq and was awarded a Commendation Medal for meritorious service. Shortly after the war, he was promoted to Master Sergeant and was awarded the Meritorious Service Award. Now, as Bush weighs ordering another war with Iraq, he must also decide whether to allow the execution of a once-highly decorated soldier who fought in the last war--and who may have been damaged by his service to his country.

While Jones never denied killing McBride (he confessed to the crime when first questioned by police) his trial attorneys sought to explain his behavior to the jury by arguing that Jones had been severely sexually and emotionally abused as a child. The defense lawyers also argued that Jones suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arising from his service in the military. Both prosecution and defense witnesses at the trial found that Jones suffered from neurological problems and organic brain damage, but they disagreed on the severity and the degree to which the problems contributed to his crime. The jury rejected the PTSD claims and sentenced Jones to death.

While pursuing the appeals process for Jones, his appellate attorney, Timothy W. Floyd, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, began studying the controversial subject of Gulf War Syndrome. Not long after the end of the Gulf War, many veterans began complaining of a variety of illnesses and symptoms: memory problems, muscle fatigue, difficulty with balance, severe headaches, rashes and unexplained skin diseases, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and other similar ailments--some so severe that their sufferers have been completely disabled. There is no precise figure available of those afflicted, but at least 100,000 and possibly more were affected. The number of those most sick is much smaller, most experts believe.

After 12 years--and more than $200 million in federal research--the causes of Gulf War Syndrome are still hotly debated. But several recent studies have shown exposure to the multiple chemicals that were present during the war could cause neurological damage consistent with that found in many sick gulf war veterans.

Some vets suspect that insecticides and pesticides could be to blame. During the war, the military routinely doused the camps with pesticides containing Dursban, which was banned for residential and commercial use by the EPA in 2000 because of significant health concerns. In addition, soldiers were issued individual tubes of insecticide containing DEET, a common chemical. Some soldiers also tied Dursban-laced flea collars around their necks and hands, although the military did not sanction the practice. The soldiers' uniforms were impregnated with permethrin (used to control body lice and other insects) as a further precaution.

The soldiers were exposed to other chemicals as well. More than 250,000 troops ingested the substance Pyridostigmine Bromide, or PB, an anti-nerve gas pretreatment with significant side effects of its own. U.S. troops were given PB pills to take only if a chemical attack was imminent. PB was an "investigational" drug at the time and the FDA had given the military special permission to allow its use. Soldiers were supposed to take the drug only in very limited, controled doses, but investigators have found that many soldiers took multiple doses in the mistaken belief that they would build up an immunity to chemical weapons exposure. Some recent studies have implicated PB as a possible factor in Gulf War illnesses, although the FDA recently approved the drug for use in any upcoming war with Iraq.

Some vets suspect that their illnesses may have bee caused by chemical weapon attacks. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had threatened to use his enormous stores of chemical and biological agents against the United States and other allied troops but no large-scale attack ever came. The Pentagon says there is no evidence that Iraqi forces ever used chemical weapons at all, despite the thousands of alarms sounded by chemical weapons detectors throughout the theater of operations. They were all false alarms, the military said, although more sophisticated sensors brought in the Czech military did detect small amounts of Sarin and other chemical agents in a few instances during the war. The Pentagon does not dispute the Czech data but says it cannot explain it.

After the war, when U.S. soldiers were destroying Iraqi weapons munitions, they blew up a huge cache near Khamisiyah in Iraq. At the time, the soldiers believed the depot contained only conventional weapons but, in fact, it also contained stores of Sarin gas, a chemical agent that can be highly lethal. It was not until 1996 (after Jones' trial) that the Pentagon acknowledged that Sarin gas had been released at Khamisiyah, and it sought to downplay its significance. At first, it said only a few hundred soldiers might have been exposed to low-levels of Sarin, then a few thousand. Later the Pentagon concluded that more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers were exposed to very low levels of the chemical agent. Pentagon officials have consistently maintained that the exposure level was so low that it would have no consequences on the health of the troops. The newest research, however, strongly suggests that even at very low levels of exposure, Sarin can cause brain damage, particularly when combined with the other chemicals that the troops were exposed to during the war.

Louis Jones was one of the soldiers almost certainly exposed to the low levels of Sarin at Khamisiyah. The Pentagon sent him a letter notifying him of his likely exposure in 1997, and another letter in 2000. He never received the mail, because he was in prison. It wouldn't have mattered to his legal appeals, however, because new evidence can't be introduced in the appellate process. Indeed, much of the research linking chemical exposure--particularly Sarin gas exposure--to Gulf War Syndrome wasn't done until after Jones' 1995 conviction, so it wasn't available for his defense. "The jury was not aware, because they could not be aware, that there evidence that is clear now that Sgt. Jones was exposed to the nerve gas of Saddam Hussein," says his attorney, Tim Floyd.

Last fall, while researching contingencies if all of his client's appeals were rejected, Floyd began researching Gulf War illnesses. An internet search turned up the work of Dr. Robert Haley, head of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. In 1997, Haley published the first significant studies linking chemical exposures, including Sarin gas, and Gulf War Syndrome.

Floyd asked Haley to review his Jones' medical records. Haley did and concluded that Jones suffered clear brain damage related to his service in the Gulf War. "In my opinion," Haley wrote in his report, "Jones' Gulf War service involved chemical exposures that caused brain cell damage to deep brain structures (basil ganglia). The site of the brain cell damage...was responsible for the personality changes that contributed significantly to the tragic events of his crime."

Floyd asked prison officials to allow a blood test and an MRI spectroscopy--an advanced brain scanning test--to help corroborate the diagnosis. Prison officials allowed the blood test but turned down the request for the expensive MRI spec scan, which would have involved moving Jones from prison to a civilian hospital. The results of the blood test further confirmed Haley's diagnosis: it revealed that Jones has a genetic variance making him even more susceptible to Sarin gas poisoning than the average person. The test revealed that Jones has extremely low levels of a naturally occurring enzyme that would help protect his brain from low-level exposure to Sarin and other similar chemical agents.

The White House has little to say about Jones' request except that it is "now receiving careful consideration," according to spokeswoman Ashley Snee. As governor of Texas, Bush intervened only once in a death penalty case. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas and a close political ally of Bush, recently came out in favor of giving Jones the advanced MRI spectroscopy test. If the results corroborate Haley's diagnosis of deep brain tissue damage and Gulf War Syndrome, Hutchison says "you have to go back and start the [legal] process again for him."

Jones' attorney says he is only seeking to have his client's death sentence commuted to life in prison with no possibility of parole. "He has never wanted to make excuses for this crime. That is still true," Floyd says. "He believes he is responsible and he ought to be punished severely for it."

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya K. Pierce, declined to comment on the new issues raised by Jones in his request for clemency. She did argue at Jones' trial that his actions the night he murdered McBride demonstrated that he was no madman. He tried to cover up evidence of the crime, including forcing his victim to walk on towels in his apartment so fiber and other evidence would be hidden.

Tracie McBride's family is outraged by Jones' petition. "I think it's an excuse. There's a lot of people that go to the Gulf War and don't come back and murder people," Irene McBride, Tracie's mother, told ABC's Good Morning America. "I think that there is no reason that a criminal should be able to look at their past or their present not to change what they did. It's not about the criminal. It's about the crime." Tracie's sister, Stacie McBride, told a reporter that death was the only punishment acceptable for Jones. "I don't want him living in a prison where he can watch cable TV, lift weights, go to the library, eat, sleep, talk to his family," she said. "Where was the mercy when Tracie pleaded? He refused to have any lenience on her." The heartbroken McBride family says it will travel to Terre Haute next week--and that they fervently hope the execution of Louis Jones Jr. will proceed.