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Military appeals court to decide: Was Marine’s suicide attempt a crime?

WASHINGTON — Marine Corps Pvt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell committed a crime when he tried to kill himself.

Now, amid growing attention to the rash of wartime suicides, Caldwell’s troubling case will present judges with a legal dilemma balancing the dictates of military discipline against evolving notions of mental health. What happens next will shape military law and order alike.

“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to live anymore, and I feel like I couldn’t have put up with things anymore,” Caldwell told officials, court records show.

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Caldwell, of Oceanside, Calif., pleaded guilty to “self injury without intent to avoid service” following the January 2010 wrist-slitting on Okinawa, Japan, but he has since reconsidered his plea. On Tuesday, the nation’s highest military appeals court is scheduled to take up his case.

In the 40-minute oral argument, the five members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will confront whether a bona fide suicide attempt should be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To be successfully prosecuted, the suicide attempt also must be deemed conduct that causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute.”

The case marks the first time since the Gulf War of 1990-1991 that the suicide attempt issue has reached the high military panel.

“The difference between then and now is that our understanding of suicide and suicide attempts has progressed quite a bit in the last 20 years,” Caldwell’s attorney, Navy Lt. Michael B. Hanzel, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

No one disputes that Caldwell was an imperfect Marine. He received a bad conduct discharge after also being convicted of larceny, driving without a license and possessing the drug known as spice. But on the delicate self-injury issue, the attorneys involved — the Bremerton, Wash.-based Hanzel and the Washington, D.C.-based Marine major who represents the government — present starkly different perspectives.

“Surely, neither Congress nor the president intended (the military code) to be used as a strict liability statute to prosecute mentally ill people who make genuine suicide attempts, particularly when there are strong indications their mental illness played a role,” Hanzel argued in a legal brief.

Marine Corps Maj. David N. Roberts responded that it’s up to politicians to decide whether to change the military proscription against self-injury; a proscription, officials stress, that helps retain all-important discipline.

“There is no basis in law for this court to create a ‘suicide exception’ to crimes prosecuted under the Uniform Code,” Roberts wrote in a legal brief. “That policy distinction is best left to the political branches.”

Certainly, Congress and the Pentagon have begun paying much more attention to military suicides over the course of the long Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Last year, the 301 known suicides accounted for 20 percent of all U.S. military deaths. Between 2001 and August 2012, the U.S. military counted 2,676 suicides.

“The suicide trend among service members and veterans continues to move in a troubling and tragic direction,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged earlier this year at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. In other words, he said, it’s “an epidemic.”

Earlier this year, the Army Times and other periodicals reported that the Defense Department’s general counsel ordered a review of whether the Manual for Courts-Martial should take into account whether a suicide attempt is genuine or simply a gesture.

Caldwell’s defenders insist the trend, and new insights into stress and mental health, should guide the military appeals court away from its past unforgiving rulings on prosecuting suicide attempts. One key precedent involved a Vietnam War sailor who cut himself, while another involved a soldier who shot himself in the shoulder during the first Gulf War. Both convictions were upheld.

Caldwell was 23 years old in January 2010. Although he had not served in Iraq or Afghanistan, he had been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome after he was stabbed by his fiance, among other personal travails. Doctors prescribed Zoloft and two other drugs, which Caldwell believed caused seizures. After he was told he was being sent back to the brig over the alleged theft of a belt, Caldwell began sobbing uncontrollably while alone in the 4th Marine Regiment barracks at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

“I didn’t have any of the medication or anything anymore,” Caldwell later told officials, court records show, “and then I took the razor blade and I slit my wrist.”

A gunnery sergeant subsequently found Caldwell and used socks to stop the bleeding before hospital corpsmen arrived.

Adopting the government’s position, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals refused to second-guess Caldwell’s court-martial conviction.

“Self-injury has long been a chargeable offense in military jurisprudence,” Judge Raymond Beal noted last year in a concurring opinion for the lower court, adding that it “has the potential to cause tremendous prejudice to the good order and discipline within a unit.”
 

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