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PTSD at issue for veteran accused of murder attempt

By LANCE BENZEL | The Gazette, Colorado Springs (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 24, 2016

An ex-Fort Carson sniper appears prison bound after shooting a man in the hand during what supporters call a "dissociative state" triggered by combat stress.

Advocates for 27-year-old former Army Staff Sgt. Cory Griffin are mounting a last-ditch effort to get him into a special treatment program before a sentencing scheduled for Wednesday.

Short of an 11th hour intervention, Griffin faces 5 to 16 years of mandatory prison under a March guilty plea to second-degree assault - a deal that Griffin took to avoid going to trial on a second-degree murder charge with the potential for 40-years in prison.

"It's disgusting - this kid gave his health to this country," said Robert Alvarez, a former counselor at Fort Carson who now works as an investigator for USJAG, a nonprofit that advocates across the country for soldiers suffering post-traumatic syndrome.

Griffin, who has no prior convictions, is a two-time combat veteran who reports he was directly hit by improvised explosive devices three times in 2009 while patrolling Sadr City, Iraq, in an armored vehicle. He later served in Afghanistan and left the Army with traumatic brain injury and PTSD, which he had minimized when hoping to join the Army's Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets.

Alvarez, fellow Army colleagues and several psychologists call him the victim of "overcharging" by prosecutors and a dismissive attitude toward PTSD.

"The only crime of violence being perpetrated here is the one against Cory Griffin," said Miriam Blum, a 41-year psychologist who has diagnosed Griffin as suffering from dissociative episodes, or periods during which he blacks out from trauma.

Blum, who has treated Griffin since shortly after his Nov. 10, 2014 arrest, said that while PTSD is relatively common, only a tiny percentage of the 1,300 veterans she has seen since the September 2001 terrorist attacks suffer from similar blackouts.

Blum's diagnosis was shared by Karen Fukutami of Denver and at least two other clinical providers, and even a probation officer who reviewed the case in a pre-sentencing report suggests that probation would be appropriate, documents show.

The case highlights long-simmering tensions over admissions criteria for El Paso County's Veterans Court, where veterans grappling with the fallout of war can receive probation if they plead guilty and agree to participate in intensive treatment.

Prosecutors have veto power over who is allowed in, and they generally bar anyone accused of crimes involving the use of a weapon.

"We're asking them to stop the train, back it up a little, look at the facts and come to an honest decision about what really happened that night," said Alvarez. He noted that Fort Carson's top officer, Maj. Gen. Ryan F. Gonsalves, terminated Army disciplinary proceedings against Griffin and ordered that he be reviewed for a medical discharge, which was ultimately granted.

Griffin was arrested by Fountain police after shooting an Army friend with a .40 caliber pistol during a night of drinking in his apartment.

The victim, Nathan Dragovich, was wounded in the webbing between his thumb and forefinger - an injury that has interfered with the use of his hand.

Dragovich initially described the shooting as an accident, telling superiors at Fort Carson that he knew "it wasn't Cory," but he later reversed his story and called it attempted murder, said Sgt. 1st Class Ramon Contreras, who supervised both men.

"He deserves to get his name cleared," Contreras added.

Prosecutors say they are skeptical of the PTSD claim, favoring the theory that Griffin targeted his friend because he believed he was sleeping with Griffin's wife.

The claim the shooting was motivated by jealousy appears to stem from a frantic 911 call by Griffin's wife, JenaRae Griffin, who said her husband fired "because he thinks I'm cheating on him." She later retracted the statement, saying she made an assumption while struggling to make sense of the shooting, during a period when her husband was curled in "the fetal position" in a utility closet, screaming about "the Taliban."

Griffin's attorney, Kent Freudenberg, said he lobbied for months to get Griffin into Veterans Court but couldn't persuade prosecutors to give the case a closer look.

In correspondence provided to The Gazette by Griffin's supporters, prosecutor Brien Cecil calls the shooting a "run-of-the mill" attempted murder fueled by alcohol and jealousy. He accused Blum of "drinking the KoolAid" in accepting the Griffins' account.

Freudenberg said he requested a meeting with District Attorney Dan May to discuss the case, but hadn't heard back.

Griffin's dwindling options include persuading the presiding judge, District Judge Lin Billings-Vela, to let him withdraw his plea.

The request would likely have little effect, however, unless prosecutors were amenable to giving Griffin a berth in Veterans Court, whose administrator, Leo Martinez, has written in support of taking on Griffin as a client.

Freudenberg said he leaves the decision whether to go to trial to his clients, who must carefully weigh the risks of losing, especially when sentence enhancers are charged, as in the Griffin case.

Should Griffin be sent to prison, Freudenberg said he will begin setting the groundwork for the next battle: Urging the judge to reconsider her sentence, a request he said he could make within a matter of months of the penalty being imposed.

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