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Military’s highest court reverses suicide attempt conviction

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s highest court has reversed a discharged Marine’s criminal conviction for slitting his wrists in a case that raised questions about whether suicidal service members should be prosecuted.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled in a 3-2 decision released late Monday that a military judge shouldn’t have accepted Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell’s guilty plea in 2010 to a charge of “wrongful self-injury without intent to avoid service” because his plea offer was technically insufficient. The opinion didn’t address the larger question of whether military suicide attempts should be prosecuted as crimes or considered noncriminal matters requiring treatment.

Caldwell, 26, of Oceanside, Calif., never deployed to a war zone but was diagnosed in 2009 with post-traumatic stress disorder and a personality disorder, according to court records. He slit his wrists at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, after learning of a friend’s death back home. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail and received a bad conduct discharge for the self-injury conviction and convictions for larceny and violating orders.

Caldwell said last year that he pleaded guilty because he hoped it would be the quickest way to get home to see his sick mother. The court-martial judge accepted his guilty plea without ordering a mental health examination, which Caldwell’s lawyer, Navy Lt. Mike Hanzel contended was a mistake.

The new ruling sends the case back to a lower appellate court, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. The lower court can either dismiss the self-injury charge and reassess the sentence, or order a rehearing.

Chief Judge James E. Baker wrote for the majority that Caldwell’s guilty plea was unacceptable. He said it didn’t establish that Caldwell’s conduct contradicted good order and discipline or brought discredit to the armed forces.

“Therefore, we need not determine whether, as a general matter, a bona fide suicide attempt alone may be service discrediting, or is more properly considered a noncriminal matter requiring treatment not prosecution,” Baker wrote. Judges Charles E. Erdmann and Walter T. Cox III concurred.

Baker wrote in a footnote that the court took judicial notice of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s assertion in 2012 that “suicide prevention is first and foremost a leadership responsibility.”

Suicide prevention has become a priority across the military as numbers climbed in the past decade with the increasing stress of combat and multiple deployments in the wars.

The charge of which Caldwell was convicted has been on the books since at least the 1940s. It is applied in self-injury cases in which the government can’t prove intent to avoid service but can show that the act was detrimental to good order and discipline, or could bring discredit upon the armed forces.

Craig Bryan, a former Air Force psychologist who has studied military suicides, said last year he knew of only a handful of cases of service members disciplined for a suicide attempts. In those instances, the military interpreted the suicide attempts as a way to avoid disciplinary action, he said.

Judge Margaret Ryan said in a dissenting opinion that the high court had no authority to review the court-martial judge’s wisdom in accepting Caldwell’s guilty plea to a punishable offense. Ryan’s dissent was supported by Judge Scott W. Stucky.