WASHINGTON — The top military appeals court has set aside the court-martial conviction of a young Okinawa-based Marine who tried to kill himself, but it left intact the possibility that others may face similar charges of “self-injury” in the future.
In a closely watched case, amid what Pentagon officials call an epidemic of military suicides, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threw out Lazzaric T. Caldwell’s guilty plea to charges of wrongful self-injury. The narrow ruling by a divided court cleans up a little of Caldwell’s personal record, while leaving to another day the bigger controversy that made his case so electrifying.
“Even though it was narrowly decided,” Navy Lt. Mike Hanzel, Caldwell’s Bremerton, Wash.-based attorney, said in an interview Tuesday, “it still sends the message that we should not be prosecuting attempted suicide.”
The setting aside of Caldwell’s guilty plea, because of facts specific to his case, means another military prosecution eventually could become a test case for the crime of self-injury. Congress or the Pentagon also could address the broader legal question if officials want to modify military law.
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The military suicide problem is severe after the protracted Iraq and Afghanistan wars, officials acknowledge.
According to the most recent Department of Defense Suicide Event Report, 301 active-duty members of the military committed suicide in 2011.
Active-duty members may be prosecuted under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for conduct that causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute.” Self-injury is one of the enumerated examples of this kind of conduct, as are a variety of other actions, ranging from indecent language and perjury to straggling and wearing unauthorized insignia.