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Court to rule: Is attempting suicide a crime?

Jul. 18, 2012 - 04:35PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 18, 2012 - 04:35PM  |  
Lazzaric Caldwell, a Marine Corps private who cut his wrists in an undisputed suicide attempt, was convicted for intentional self-injury, a military charge often used to prosecute service members who try to shirk their duties.
Lazzaric Caldwell, a Marine Corps private who cut his wrists in an undisputed suicide attempt, was convicted for intentional self-injury, a military charge often used to prosecute service members who try to shirk their duties. (Denis Poroy / The Associated Press)
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The military's highest court will soon decide whether troops can be court-martialed for trying to kill themselves.

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The military's highest court will soon decide whether troops can be court-martialed for trying to kill themselves.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces will review the June 2010 conviction of a Marine who slit his wrists in a barracks in Okinawa. A lower court ruled that his attempted suicide was "prejudicial to good order and discipline" and amounted to "conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the Armed Services."

Marine Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell was sentenced to 180 days' confinement and a bad-conduct discharge. The sentence was for the attempted suicide and two other convictions, participation in a theft and possessing synthetic marijuana, court records show.

Caldwell pleaded guilty to the self-injury, but his attorney">later appealed based on "the theory that prosecution of a genuine suicide attempt ought to be prohibited under public policy reasons," court records show.

Prosecuting troops for attempting suicide is sharply at odds with top Pentagon officials' repeated statements encouraging commanders to treat troubled troops with compassion and encourage them to seek mental health care. Caldwell's case highlights the lingering tension within some segments of the military community about how to respond to suicide and mental health problems.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces the last stop before the Supreme Court announced July 11 that it would hear Caldwell's case to address the question of "whether as a matter of law a bona fide suicide attempt is punishable as self-injury under Article 134."

Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, known as the General Article, can be applied to a broad range of misconduct.

The court will likely schedule a formal hearing on the case later this year.

The decision to review the case may be a sign that the military's top judges disagree with the previous ruling to uphold the conviction, handed down by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in December.

The NMCCA concluded that the decision to prosecute a suicide attempt should be "a matter left to the convening authority's unfettered discretion."

"Conceivably, some instances of self-injury or malingering could be concealed in the guise of a sincere suicide attempt," the court said.

Although prosecuting troops for attempted suicide is extremely rare, the NMCCA noted that neither Congress nor the president has ever explicitly prohibited it.

"If a convening authority feels it necessary to resort to court-martial to address this type of a leadership challenge, he or she should be allowed to do so, at least until the executive or legislative branches of government have proscribed this approach by law or regulation," the court said.

The ‘last straw'

At the time of his suicide attempt, Caldwell was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and an "unspecified personality disorder." He was prescribed several psychiatric medications, including Zoloft, but had stopped taking them because he thought they were causing seizures, court records show.

Caldwell had just learned his mother was seriously ill and was also grieving over the death of a friend and fellow Marine who had been recently discharged and sent home, court records show.

Moments before Caldwell cut his wrists with a razor, he was "in a highly distraught state" after learning that he was going to the brig on previous criminal charges, including possession of the drug spice and a theft charge stemming from an incident in which his Japanese girlfriend stole a leather belt from a local merchant. He was found guilty of theft for failing to stop her.

The series of bad news amounted to "the last straw" for Caldwell after a series of personal and psychiatric problems, the judges said.

Caldwell was alone in the barracks because a Marine gunnery sergeant had given him a few minutes of privacy to call his family before escorting him to the brig, court records show.

When the gunny returned to the barracks, he found "a trail of blood on the barracks floor." He wrapped Caldwell's wrists in socks and called for medical help from a corpsman. Court records show Caldwell was later taken to a hospital psychiatric ward.

His conviction for attempted suicide is troubling to mental health experts. Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said a court-martial was "extremely ill-advised" and runs counter to the conventional wisdom in today's military.

"This particular response may represent the last vestiges of an old military," said Berman, a member of the Defense Department's 2009 task force on suicide prevention. "It is some of those last vestiges that we should very actively speak out against."

There is no evidence that prosecuting troops for attempting suicide would provide an effective deterrent to help reduce overall suicide rates, an expert said.

"The vast majority of people who try to kill themselves are in a great deal of distress and would not be deterred by prosecution down the road," said Elspeth Ritchie, a recently retired Army colonel who led the Army's mental health and suicide prevention efforts until 2010.

Ritchie said such prosecutions could potentially have a chilling effect on troops' willingness to seek mental health care.

"Especially if someone has made a suicidal gesture or intent and they are worried they could be prosecuted, I could see that making people reluctant to seek care," she said in an interview.

The commander of the Army's Fort Bliss in Texas set off a controversy in May when he publicly criticized troops who kill themselves as "selfish."

"I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us," Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard wrote on his official blog.

He later retracted the comments, saying they were "not in line with the Army's guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide."

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