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Military court to revisit statute criminalizing suicide attempts

Lawyers for Lazzaric T. Caldwell, a discharged Marine from Oceanside, will argue it is wrong for the military to punish troops whose mental problems cause them to attempt suicide.

November 24, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

In a case involving a discharged Marine from Oceanside, a military court next week will consider the decades-old military statute that makes it a crime to attempt suicide.

Lawyers for Lazzaric T. Caldwell will argue it is wrong for the military to punish troops whose mental problems cause them to attempt suicide — particularly in an era when the military is trying to reduce the soaring suicide rate among troops.

According to court records, the statute in the Uniform Code of Military Justice was used in World War II to punish troops attempting to avoid duty by faking suicide. The statute has not come to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which will consider Caldwell's case, since the Gulf War of 1990-91, when it was upheld.

Navy Lt. Michael Hanzel, representing Caldwell, argued in a legal brief that "surely, neither Congress nor the president intended [the statute] ... to prosecute mentally ill people who make genuine suicide attempts."

But Marine Maj. David Roberts, representing the government, countered that the statute is clearly written and that it helps retain discipline within the ranks.

Caldwell, now 25, admitted that he slit his wrists in January 2010 while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He pleaded guilty to attempting suicide and was sentenced to 180 days in the brig and a bad-conduct discharge. His lawyers are arguing that his guilty plea be thrown out.

The bad-conduct discharge bars Caldwell from receiving veterans benefits, including mental health counseling. Caldwell was never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan but was troubled by numerous problems, including being stabbed by a girlfriend, the deaths of several family members, and confrontations with other Marines, according to court documents.

Along with the suicide charge, Caldwell was convicted of larceny, driving without a license and possession of a banned substance. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 20 after a troubled life in Texas that included a year in jail for assault.

"Now I focus on God and good music," according to a statement on his Facebook page.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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