PTSD cited as Iraq War vet seeks lesser sentence
COLUMBUS — An Iraq War veteran convicted of shooting at Oregon police officers deserves “one fair shot” to have his sentence lessened because of his post-traumatic stress disorder, his attorney told the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But some jus-tices questioned whether the 27-year sentence he received would be any different if they sent the case back to Lucas County, even under an amended law now requiring such a diagnosis to be considered.
The court did not immediately rule.
Jeffrey Belew served three years with the Marines, including one year in Iraq in 2008. Today he is being held in the Toledo Correctional Institution on two felonious-assault convictions for firing on police officers who responded early in the morning of April 10, 2011, to a disturbance at Piccadilly East Apartments, 2750 Pickle Rd.
Two of Belew’s shots in the parking lot hit one of the patrol cars, and police returned fire, striking him once in the upper right torso. Police performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until Belew was transported to the hospital.
A psychologist testified that Belew, now 27, was severely depressed, suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with alcohol, and likely trying to commit “suicide by cop.”
Stephen Hardwick, an Ohio assistant public defender, told the Supreme Court that Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings did not properly consider his PTSD when she said it was “no excuse” for what he’d done.
“During this time [in Iraq] he was trying to deal with children trying to kill him. …,” he said. “He lived in such constant fear that one way he dealt with it was what he called ‘50-50,’ living each day as if he had a 50 percent chance of dying before tomorrow.”
He told the court that Belew had trouble readjusting to life outside the military after receiving a bad-conduct discharge from the military for stealing a military vehicle to go on a joyride at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
But Lucas County Assistant Prosecutor David Cooper told the court that the Oregon shooting incident was not an isolated case, and Belew had a juvenile record of violence before enlisting in the military. He said Judge Jennings indicated she had taken the PTSD diagnosis under consideration before determining that the maximum sentence under the plea deal was warranted.
“What do we tell the judge?” he asked. “If the court reverses, she might very well say, “I already considered these things … and this is the sentence I think is appropriate.’ ”
Several justices posed a similar question. Mr. Hardwick, however, argued the sentence itself indicated she did not properly weigh the diagnosis and said Belew never offered PTSD as an “excuse” for what he’d done as the trial judge suggested.
Belew received two consecutive 10-year sentences for the first-degree felony assault convictions and a seven-year concurrent sentence on two related gun specifications.
It was the maximum sentence available under Belew’s plea agreement, but seven years less than he could have otherwise received if the two gun sentences had been imposed consecutively.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor agreed that what Belew went through in Iraq was “pretty horrific.”
“It’s like extremes in both directions,” she said. “Not all veterans who come back with post-traumatic stress disorder act the way your client has acted and is dangerous to those around them in the community and ultimately law enforcement.”
Brent Butcher of Westerville and his father, John — Persian Gulf and Vietnam War-era veterans, respectively — felt it was important to attend Wednesday’s arguments even though they’ve never met Belew.
“Anybody who gives the sacrifice of saying, ‘I’ll go, I’ll serve, I’ll die,’ over someone else and has injuries from that, every court should take that into account,” Brent Butcher said after the arguments. “We see more and more these days veterans coming home, and they have to fight to get health care and have to fight to prove they have PTSD.”
The Butchers were not in uniform, and they said the justices probably didn’t know veterans were in the courtroom.