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Veterans Suspected of Crimes Swap Guilty Pleas for Rehabilitation

March 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tom Bearden reports on special courts that give veterans probation and treatment, especially for post-traumatic stress disorder, instead of prison sentences if they plead guilty to a crime.
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TOM BEARDEN: Nic Gray was a sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was part of the Iraq troop surge in February 2007.

NIC GRAY, former U.S. soldier: We were just building COPs, which are the combat outposts, which is really what the surge was all about, was taking small neighborhoods and building little bases in them that are troubled, and then clearing and maintaining as well.

TOM BEARDEN: He returned to the States that fall, left the Army when his time was up, and moved to Colorado Springs to start a business. One night last October, he was on the phone talking with a buddy who served with him in Baghdad.

NIC GRAY: We were just kind of talking about our experiences, about, you know, our time over there. And that’s pretty much the last thing that I remember. The next thing that I recall is coming to in an orange jumpsuit in county jail, charged with two felonies.

TOM BEARDEN: Gray, who suffers from PTSD, apparently had a flashback, and went on a rampage in his neighborhood, attacking a parked car, kicking in a neighbor’s door, threatening the couple inside.

NIC GRAY: I was on a mission in my neighborhood, and I was clearing houses.

TOM BEARDEN: What do you mean?

NIC GRAY: Well, essentially, clearing a house is when you go ahead and you bust in the front door or side door, and you go inside to ensure that there’s no, in this case, insurgents in there to go ahead and be able to harm you or your — your — your fellow soldiers as well.

TOM BEARDEN: So, you thought you were back in Iraq?

NIC GRAY: I thought I was back in Iraq, yes.

TOM BEARDEN: Gray could have gotten three to five years in jail for the two felonies, but thanks to a new pilot program in Colorado Springs, he was instead tried in a special veterans court.

WOMAN: The Honorable Ronald Crowder presiding.

JUDGE RONALD CROWDER, Colorado Fourth Judicial District Court: Thank you. Please be seated.

TOM BEARDEN: Defendants in this experimental court plead guilty to their crimes and agree to a strict probation, which includes mental health counseling, addiction treatment, if needed, and monthly court appearances.

JUDGE RONALD CROWDER: And what have you been doing recently?

MAN: It’s a lot of intensive therapy, a lot of one-on-one therapy. So, I mean, it — it — you know, it was very beneficial for me.

TOM BEARDEN: Sheilagh McAteer has acted as public defender for many of these veterans.

SHEILAGH MCATEER, public defender: For the first time ever in my career, my 22 years as being a public defender, I am now a strong part of a team that is advocating treatment over punishment. And you don’t see that often in the criminal system. You know, most of the time, everybody advocates for punishment for your wrongdoing.

TOM BEARDEN: There are more than 20 veterans courts around the country. The first was started in Buffalo, New York, two years ago.

Like drug courts that began in the 1980s, they’re based on the idea of treating defendants for underlying problems in order to prevent future criminal activity.

Dan May is the district attorney in Colorado Springs.

DAN MAY, El Paso County, Colo., district attorney: This is for the person that hasn’t done a spectacular crime, but they have done some crime, and it isn’t in their nature, and it may be directly related back to PTSD or the closed head injuries.

And before, what we were doing is just sending them on probation, not treating that, and then they do would another crime, and it may even escalate. What we’re excited about with this is now, when we put them on probation, we can actually put them in treatment programs that really get down to what’s causing them to act this way.

JUDGE RONALD CROWDER: How do you plead to the charge of theft?

MAN: Guilty, your honor.

TOM BEARDEN: Veterans courts handle both misdemeanor charges, like DUIs, drug possession, and theft, as well as felonies, including assaults and other violent crimes. But there is a limit.

DAN MAY: I’m being very cautious in what I take in. If you have done a murder, if you have done an attempted murder, if you have done a rape, if you’re sexually assaulting kids, some of that isn’t even going to be related to PTSD, quite frankly. But that’s just too spectacular to be in this program.

TOM BEARDEN: Some people argue, however, that veterans courts should be helping more violent offenders, especially in cases like domestic abuse.

Robert Alvarez is a former Marine and a psychologist who works with wounded war vets. One of his current clients is a decorated soldier named Jess Seiwert, who suffered traumatic brain injury in Iraq. He came home addicted to the painkiller OxyContin and alcohol and was recently charged in two cases of domestic abuse.

Alvarez says he is precisely the kind of veteran who should be allowed to go through veterans court, but the district attorney denied that request.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, veterans advocate: Today, I sat in the courtroom with him, where the DA said, no, you’re going to prison. And this hero, this kid, who saved people’s lives, who served honorably, who shed his blood for us, is going to spend five years in prison, with no treatment. And, when he comes out, I’m worried, because there has — will be five more years where his brain will receive no treatment.

TOM BEARDEN: District Attorney May says, right now, the veterans court can only handle a limited number of defendants at any given time, approximately 50 to 75, so he has to be selective with the cases he refers.

The court is also limited by the fact that, so far, only one judge in Colorado Springs has agreed to participate. Judge Ron Crowder says it involves a lot of extra work.

JUDGE RONALD CROWDER: I typically meet with everyone in a jury room, and we will have the VA there, the probation department, defense counsel, the prosecution, myself, representatives from the program, such as Carrie Bailey, and they will discuss the case. And they will talk about how this soldier or former soldier is doing and what should we be doing.

So, I’m much better informed when they appear in front of me, and I have a dialogue with them. So, I enjoy that kind of interaction. But it is much more time-intensive.

TOM BEARDEN: Some critics say these courts give veterans special treatment not available to others. But public defender McAteer says that consideration is deserved.

SHEILAGH MCATEER: They are different than the average Joe that comes through the court system, in that many of them have sacrificed their own personal safety to protect my constitutional rights. To protect my rights, they fought in a war.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you feel you got a special deal?

NIC GRAY: No, I don’t feel I got a special deal. I feel I got a just deal. I think justice was served in this case.

What they’re doing is that they’re recognizing that, with my past being taken into consideration, that this incident wouldn’t have happened if I had not been serving the country. You know, they can’t erase what has happened to all of us, including myself. But they can go ahead and try to prevent things from happening in the future. And this is one of the ways of getting to that resolution.

TOM BEARDEN: There is no data yet to tell whether this kind of court will achieve the overall goal of preventing future crimes. But the court in Buffalo has had 22 veterans graduate from its program, and, so far, none have committed new crimes.