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Cruel and Unusual: Why Are We Doling Out Harsh Justice to Returning War Vets?

Veterans are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans for the same crime. How can we treat returning soldiers so badly?

Last March, a member of one of the U.S. military's special operations forces (SOF), home from Iraq for a family emergency, shot and killed a dog that attacked him on his front lawn. He is now facing multiple felony charges and maybe a prison sentence.


His story is as old as war, and like war, everything depends on who tells it.

At this soldier's request, I will call him Brian, although that is not his real name, and I will refer to his service unit simply as a special operations force (e.g., the Army's Green Berets, Delta Force, Rangers, or the Navy's SEALs), to protect the identity of the elite team he works with.

SOF members go to great lengths to guard their anonymity. Their missions are often clandestine and dangerous, not to mention controversial. And so, even the publicity of a trial, much less a felony conviction, would very likely deprive Brian of his career. He is still hoping a judge can be persuaded to dismiss the charges altogether -- hence his insistence on camouflaging his identity.

Brian joined the service in 1995, right after graduating from high school. By the time he was 25, he had completed the rigorous training required of a member of the SOF and has been deployed many times to various countries on classified assignments. He has a stellar military record, including a Bronze Star, and his civilian record is completely clean.

Family and friends I have reason to trust described him to me as "a straight arrow," "an outstanding soldier," "a good father" and "a good person."

Brian was granted an emergency leave to support his wife and family after she miscarried with their third child. He arrived on a Monday. On Tuesday, after dropping off his two sons at school, he returned home, and as he was walking from his car the dog attacked. He shot it three times with the handgun he legally carries. He then called 911.

The police arrived, heard Brian's account of what had happened, heard a number of neighbors tell stories about how dangerous the dog was and left without issuing Brian so much as a summons.

But several days later, two felony warrants issued and a misdemeanor charge by local animal control officers was made. And on Saturday morning, the county police arrived at his home, arrested and handcuffed him in front of his wife and children, and took him off to jail where he was held for three days.

Brian retained a local lawyer and, in the subsequent weeks, one of the felony charges and the misdemeanor charge were dropped. The felony animal-cruelty charge remained. But at his arraignment, he was charged with an additional felony (destruction of property) and three more misdemeanors (disorderly conduct, firing a weapon in a prohibited area and another animal-cruelty charge).

A trial date was set for September.

Blind Justice?

Iconographic representations of Lady Justice adorn many of the world's courthouses. With the scale she holds in one hand, she promises to weigh the evidence fairly, and with the sword she holds in the other, to enforce her decisions. She also wears a blindfold to indicate her impartiality to the social status or privilege of those who stand before her.

She is Blind Justice, but as William Ian Miller pointedly asks in his examination of the Talionic code (an eye for an eye), "Do you want to blindfold someone with a sword? It may not be wise to have her unable to see what she is striking. … And how is she supposed to read the scales, if she is blind?"

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