COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a case closely watched by advocates for veterans and the mentally ill, the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed an appeal filed by an Iraq War veteran sentenced to 27 years in prison for a 2011 shootout with Oregon police.
Jeffrey Belew, who served in Iraq in 2008, had argued that his post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t given proper consideration when he was sentenced.
The high court voted 4-3 that it shouldn’t have accepted the appeal in the first place with the majority providing no explanation for its decision.
Justice William O’Neill was one of the dissenters, arguing that courts must consider that the military “took a marginal recruit from an abusive family and turned him into a fighting machine.” He wrote that Belew was intent on “suicide by cop” in the early morning of April 10, 2011, when he engaged in a shootout with police in the parking lot of Piccadilly East Apartments, 2750 Pickle Rd.
“I would respectfully suggest that one trial court judge, three appellate court judges, and the majority of this court simply do not get it,” he wrote. “PTSD is not an excuse. It is an explanation.
“There is more at stake here than garden-variety excuses for criminal culpability," he wrote. "Belew was a marginal Marine recruit; he developed PTSD while on active duty; and he was turned out of the service with a bad-conduct discharge and little or no capacity to function safely in society.”
Belew’s attorney, Ohio Assistant Public Defender Stephen Hardwick, said he might ask the high court to reconsider, hoping to sway at least one justice.
“Although in the vast majority of cases, judges impose fair and correct sentences, they are going to make mistakes and sometimes big mistakes,” he said. “That’s why we need appeals courts to review outlier cases, cases where trial judges get it horribly wrong. This is one of those cases.”
Lucas County Assistant Prosecutor David Cooper had argued that Belew had a history of violence as a juvenile before enlisting.
“Everybody supports the troops, and PTSD is on everyone’s mind,” he said. “But I didn’t think this was an appropriate case because, whether or not you agree with the judge, she followed the process.”
Justices Paul Pfeifer, Judith French, Sharon Kennedy, and Terrence O’Donnell made up the majority.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Judith Lanzinger in her dissent, arguing that the court should not only have ruled in the case but should have upheld the 6th District Court of Appeals ruling upholding the sentence imposed by Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings.
Belew served three years with the Marines, including one year in Iraq. He pleaded to two felonious assault convictions for firing at police officers. Two shots hit a patrol car. Police returned fire, striking him once in the upper right torso. Police performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until Belew was transported to the hospital.
He received two consecutive 10-year sentences for each assault charge and two seven-year sentences, to be served concurrently, on two gun specifications.
It was the maximum sentence he could have received under his plea agreement.