Attorney seeks justice for Marine recruit confined more than two years without trial or charges
By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: February 17, 2020
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A Marine recruit arrested on suspicion of striking a drill instructor at the service’s San Diego boot camp has spent most of the past two years in the brig and is now confined to a federal prison hospital.
He has not had a trial, nor has he been charged with a crime, according to the Marine Corps and the man’s attorney.
Jay-Ar Ruiz’s case raises questions about how the military justice system handles complex issues involving mental health, his attorney said, and how someone like Ruiz — who his lawyer said had a pre-existing mental illness — was allowed to ship off to boot camp in the first place.
Ruiz, 28, enlisted in the Marine Corps in Los Angeles and reported to the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot in November 2017. By January 2018, three months later, he was locked in the brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where he would remain for 22 months.
It wasn’t long after he started training that Ruiz began exhibiting behaviors his lawyer said were symptomatic of mental illness — a condition she said should have disqualified him for military service.
“Within days (of arriving at boot camp) he starts exhibiting behaviors with this personality disorder,” said attorney Beth Payton-O’Brien during an interview. “He gets dropped within 30 days. He should have never been recruited.”
Payton-O’Brien, a retired Navy captain and former military judge, is Ruiz’s civilian military defense attorney. She recently signed on to defend the Marine, who is incarcerated at a secure federal medical center in Springfield, Mo.
He was transferred to the facility in November after 22 months in the Miramar brig.
Payton-O’Brien said Ruiz authorized her to discuss his case and medical condition with the Union-Tribune, which also has been in communication with Ruiz via letters and email.
A spokesman for MCRD San Diego, which is still Ruiz’s command, said he could not go into detail about Ruiz’s case, though the Marines do not dispute the main facts as described by Payton-O’Brien.
Ruiz’s issues began well before he shipped off to boot camp in November 2017.
In June 2017, a woman in Los Angeles County filed a temporary restraining order against him, according to online court records, which did not provide details. However, upon arrival in boot camp, Ruiz began sending the woman letters, violating the order.
When he was confronted by a Marine staff sergeant about the letters and was served with a military protective order, Ruiz reacted violently, striking the staff sergeant, who placed him in a bear hug, rendering him unconscious, Payton-O’Brien said.
He received medical care and was sent to the brig.
As in the civilian justice system, military service members facing criminal charges can be held in custody before trial. A military brig functions like a jail and a prison.
Ruiz began pretrial confinement in January 2018, awaiting an Article 32 hearing, which, in the military system, is similar to a civilian grand jury, except a hearing officer hears testimony and makes a recommendation whether to proceed to court-martial.
Early in Ruiz’s process, it became apparent to his first military defense attorney that he was not fit to defend himself, Payton-O’Brien said. It took six months before Navy doctors examined his mental health.
In the military justice system, a service member normally will be treated for any mental illness until they are deemed competent to defend themselves in court, Payton-O’Brien said.
Ruiz has gone through at least two competency hearings, she said. He again was found not mentally competent for trial last summer and was transferred to the medical facility in Missouri in November.
“I can’t believe how long this case has been sitting around,” Payton-O’Brien said. “It’s shocking to me that if somebody is found to be not competent to assist in their defense, that it would take almost four months to get him transferred into a mental health facility.”
A Marine Corps official not authorized to comment publicly told the Union-Tribune that delays in Ruiz’s case could be attributed partially to the Marine’s conduct while in the brig, which included damaging the facilities.
The Marines did not comment on why Ruiz was kept in the brig so long without psychiatric care.
The service also has not released Ruiz’s charge sheet. His lawyer said he is accused of assault, disobeying orders, damaging government property, stalking, violating a restraining order and fraudulent enlistment.
The Marines also declined to comment on the circumstances of Ruiz’s recruitment or his screening process.
Payton-O’Brien said the Marines are ready to administratively separate Ruiz — to remove him from the Marines — without levying criminal charges.
She said she wonders how Ruiz will conduct himself at an administrative separation board, which she plans to attend.
“The government said they’re going to drop the charges, (but) how can he be competent to defend himself in an admin board?” Payton-O’Brien said.
Payton-O’Brien said Friday she hopes to resolve Ruiz’s case without an administrative board.
If so, she hopes he continues to get medical care if he is released. She is concerned about the long-term effects of his time in custody without mental health treatment.
As for Ruiz, he has sent several pieces of correspondence, both via mail and email, alleging wrongdoing by some in the military justice system.
He said the hospital he’s at now is no different from prison.
“There’s prison politics and anything that happens in a federal penitentiary is the same here,” Ruiz wrote in a Dec. 30 letter.
Neither Payton-O’Brien nor the Marines could say when they expect the case to be resolved.