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A Marine who was court-martialed for attempting to kill himself scored a victory at the military’s highest court.
But the judges stopped short of a far-reaching decision that would prevent other commanders from punishing attempted suicides in the future.
The Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces issued a 3-2 split decision Monday that overturned the conviction of Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell on a charge of “self-injury” after he slit his wrists in a barracks in Okinawa in 2010.
According to Marine Corps prosecutors, Caldwell’s attempted suicide was “prejudicial to good order and discipline” and brought discredit to the Armed Forces, constituting a crime under Article 134, known as the General Article.
But the appeals count on Monday rejected that conclusion and found that Caldwell’s conduct might be prejudicial to good order and discipline “only in a remote or indirect sense” and did not warrant punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In a controversial move, the court stopped there and opted against taking up the broader question of “whether and when a bona fide suicide attempt” is punishable under the UCMJ.
The Corps decision to prosecute Caldwell’s attempted suicide was troubling to many mental health experts who feared it would discourage troops at risk for suicide from coming forward to seek help.
Caldwell’s case prompted an internal Pentagon review of the laws surrounding punishment of attempted suicides and to determine whether changes to the UCMJ might be appropriate. That review, which began in October, has not been completed, officials said.
About 800 active-duty service members survive attempted suicides each year, each potentially punishable under the UCMJ, according to Defense Department data.
But such prosecutions are extremely rare.
While the court’s decision does not substantially change the law that can punish attempted suicide, it is likely to have “chilling effect” on commanders’ future decisions about similar cases, a defense official said.
Caldwell's 'distraught state'
Caldwell’s attempted suicide was prompted by several factors, including news that his mother was ill and also the death of a personal friend who had recently separated from the Marine Corps and returned home.
Moments before Caldwell cut his wrists with a razor, he was “in a highly distraught state” after learning he was ordered to the brig on previous criminal charges, including possession of the synthetic marijuana-like drug Spice and a theft charge related to an incident in which his Japanese girlfriend stole a leather belt from a local merchant.
Caldwell was sentenced to 180 days’ confinement and a bad-conduct discharge. The sentence was for the self-injury and two other convictions, participation in a theft and possessing synthetic marijuana, records show.
At the time of the attempted suicide, Caldwell was suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an unspecified personality disorder, court records show. About two weeks before the incident, Caldwell stopped taking the anti-depressant medication Zoloft because he thought the pills were causing seizures, court records show.
Moments after Caldwell’s attempted suicide, a gunnery sergeant returned to the barracks, and found “a trail of blood on the barracks floor.” He wrapped Caldwell's wrists in socks and called for medical help from a corpsman.
The appeals court rejected the Marine prosecutors’ argument that using medical supplies for treating the self-inflicted wound amounted to a threat to good order and discipline.
“‘Expenditure of medical resources alone’ cannot undermine good order and discipline in this case, because “‘then every bona fide suicide attempt requiring medical attention would be per se prejudicial to good order and discipline.’” the judges wrote.
The appeals court also rejected the prosecutors’ theory that Caldwell’s attempted suicide would bring discredit upon the Marine Corps, saying that the underlying cause of public discredit would be the Marine Corp leaderships’ failure to prevent the attempted suicide.
“It was not [Caldwell’s] actions that would cause discredit, but the failure of his unit’s leaders that would have a tendency to cause discredit. If this alone were discrediting, then it would appear to be discrediting for the whistleblower to disclose fraud or the victim of an offense to report a crime by a member of the military,” the court said.
A question for Congress
Military legal experts say punishing self-injury is appropriate in some cases that do not involve suicide or mental illness; for example, a soldier who shot himself in the shoulder to avoid combat just before Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
And even cases involving attempted suicide should not be granted a general exemption to that law, according to court’s dissenting opinion that was signed by two judges.
The Article 134 law, as it is currently written, clearly gives commanders the right to punish self-injury and the appeals courts should not second-guess their use of that power, the dissenting judges said.
“While the convening authority’s decision to refer charges against [Caldwell in this case] may well be unfair or ill advised, the wisdom of that decision is not within our jurisdiction to review,” wrote Judge Margaret Ryan, in a dissent also sighed by Judge Scott Stucky.
“Until Congress or the President takes action with regard to the criminality of bona fide suicide attempts, this Court is bound to apply the law as it currently exists.”