Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones saw the horrors of the Iraq war firsthand, including the site where his fellow Marines allegedly killed 24 women, children and other civilians at Haditha.
So when he returned to Kings County, Calif., got drunk and drove a stolen pickup into someone's living room, family and friends blamed the psychological effects of war, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
His crime, like others by returning war veterans, caught the attention – and sympathies – of lawmakers and veterans groups. California passed legislation in 2006, and at least four other states have drafted or considered laws to empower judges to send these veterans to treatment in lieu of prison because their crimes may be the byproduct of war.
But a yearlong examination by The Sacramento Bee found veterans sometimes had criminal records and other questionable backgrounds before enlisting, and experts said that since crime is not a typical symptom of PTSD, their subsequent crimes more likely were a product of their backgrounds than of the war.
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“It's an excuse, the way I see it,” said Catherine Casey, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed in 2006 by another former Marine driving drunk in Minnesota.
Casey, a police investigator, was angry not only because her daughter died, but also because she learned the man who killed her had a history that included alcohol offenses before he joined the military.
The public for decades has recognized that war can cause psychological problems, but it was the post-Vietnam era that spawned a large number of studies into what became known as PTSD.
Briones' criminal history began long before he experienced the stress of a combat zone, and that criminal history is directly connected to his ending up in Iraq.
“He wasn't a person who I would classify as a real upstanding citizen, before or during the military,” said Kings County Deputy District Attorney Adam Nelson.
Briones was arrested on felony drug charges on July 20, 2003. Officers found seven baggies in Briones' pockets that they reported contained marijuana and money, an indication he had been selling drugs, according to Nelson.
Later, Nelson said, “his attorney contacted our office and said the guy wants to go into the military. At the time, we said that would probably be the best thing for him.”
The office agreed to drop charges if Briones enlisted, but Nelson now believes that agreement was a mistake.
Shortly before he deployed to Iraq in 2005, Briones was charged with drunken driving not far from the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years' informal probation.
In 2006, the Corps charged Briones with stealing nearly $4,000 in night-vision goggles and binoculars in Iraq and with trying to send two pistols in the mail. The Marines also accused Briones of a rape at Camp Pendleton.
That year, he came home on leave, stole a pickup and drove it into a living room. His blood-alcohol level was nearly double the legal limit.
His war experiences were quickly blamed.
“My boss was getting crank calls at his house, swearing at him because he's prosecuting this hero,” Nelson said.
Briones faced a maximum sentence of three years and eight months for vehicle theft, DUI and vandalism, but he pleaded guilty only to vandalism and received a two-year sentence. All the military charges were withdrawn shortly after the accident.
Nelson said a psychiatric evaluation found that Briones “was suffering from stress, but that it was not an excuse for what he did.”
Elevation of the case
Because of links to the Haditha killings, the Briones case made headlines worldwide as the chairwoman of the California Assembly's Veterans Affairs Committee was pushing fellow lawmakers to offer veterans treatment in lieu of prison.
“I brought (Briones) up, I remember, during the committee,” said Assemblywoman Nicole Parra. “I didn't know the specifics of the case to say he had PTSD, but I said … you've got to believe that (the war) had to have had some kind of impact.”
Told that Briones had been arrested on felony drug sale charges prior to his service, Parra said, “Yeah, so he sold drugs. But again, he went to war, saw horrific crimes being committed. Did that time and experience in Iraq affect him when he got back?”
The first version of the bill would have mandated that judges divert veterans diagnosed with PTSD to treatment. The governor vetoed it.
“The trauma of war is unfortunate, but justice for crime victims and the safety of the public must remain a paramount concern of the criminal justice system,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his veto message.
The version signed by Schwarzenegger in September 2006 empowers California judges to bypass sentencing guidelines and choose between treatment or jail for veterans convicted of any crime.
As word of the California law spread, Parra's office fielded calls from lawmakers in other states, including New York, Montana and Minnesota.
Minnesota tried to take the California law further, proposing that judges be empowered to divert veterans to treatment even before their criminal cases were decided.
Opposition from prosecutors and victims advocates led Minnesota lawmakers to rewrite the law. A version similar to the California bill became law in May, making Minnesota the second state to pass such legislation.
Lawyer Brockton Hunter wrote the new bill, and his inspiration was a client, former Marine Anthony Joseph Klecker, who also entered the military with a troubled past.
During high school and after graduation, Klecker collected several traffic citations, was cited for underage drinking and – he admitted to a probation officer – used marijuana periodically. Days before he joined the Marine Corps in November 2000, he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, registering a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.10 percent, but the charge was reduced to careless driving.
Klecker's Marine unit, based near San Diego, was among the first to deploy for Iraq, and the unit engaged hostile forces several times, according to his attorney and court records. In one incident that Hunter said significantly contributed to his client's PTSD, Klecker fired a machine gun into a civilian van that moved toward him despite warning shots.
In the months following his discharge from the Marines in late 2004, Klecker joined the Minnesota National Guard. Back home, his drinking led to at least two arrests for barroom altercations, one of them a felony arrest for terrorist threats that resulted in an acquittal.
On the night of Oct. 27, 2006, while on probation for one of the other assault cases, Klecker drank shots for hours at a St. Paul bar. Early the next morning, the car he was driving rammed into a concrete freeway barrier, knocking it into the opposing lane. Sixteen-year-old Deanna Casey, driving home from a late shift at a McDonald's, smashed into the barrier, then hit the cab of a tractor-trailer that hit the same barrier and flipped over.
PTSD became the centerpiece of Hunter's plea for special treatment.
Klecker's probation officer recommended 57 months, but the judge, apparently moved by Klecker's war record, sentenced him to treatment, community service, probation and, in effect, time served.
His rehabilitation was short-lived.
Klecker's probation was revoked after two altercations at a veterans treatment facility, where he also was accused of carrying a knife. This time, the judge sentenced him to four years, but he could be eligible for release in fewer than 18 months.
COMING TUESDAY: The death of an Iraqi doctor leads to an autopsy of his shooter's past.