My client, John, walked out of Bell County district court with his “freedom papers”—his words, not mine. John’s road to freedom spanned some 13 years. Back in 2006, John was arrested for possessing cocaine during a raid on a drug house outside Fort Hood. He was another homeless, jobless Army veteran with an incipient addiction. He’d meritoriously served 3 combat tours in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was never evaluated for PTSD. He’d never been arrested before 2006.
Back then, he couldn’t make bond and wanted to get out of jail, so he pled guilty and agreed to be placed on probation. The judge put him on deferred adjudication probation for 6 years. Six years. Probation is no cakewalk. He had to report once a month to the probation office. He had to pay fees, fines, and court costs adding up to a couple of hundred dollars a month. He had to work off 300 hours of community service, complete (and pay for) an outpatient treatment program, attend 12-step meetings, finish several other classes, observe a curfew, and find a job, a place to live, and a ride. He didn’t have a clue how to access his VA benefits.
It was a setup for failure for John but a better option than going to prison. He got out and he tried, but six years can seem like an eternity when you’re that far behind. Within six months he gave up, started using again, left Texas, and roamed from state to state. Meanwhile, the county filed a motion to revoke his probation, and an arrest warrant was issued. But Texas wasn’t really looking for him, and John was living in California.
Fast-forward to 2019. John’s caregiver, Susan, called my office in a panic. She told me that the VA stopped his benefits because he was a “fugitive from justice”—they’d found the arrest warrant. Over the years, VA rated John 100% disabled, but this was their opportunity to cut him off. They stopped his disability check. The VA refused to authorize future payments for his medication and counseling for severe, chronic PTSD with dissociative features, anxiety, and anger issues. He wasn’t a danger to others, but he was a danger to himself without the meds and treatment.
John and Susan had no idea that Texas issued an arrest warrant. Susan didn’t know he’d been on probation in Texas. John had forgotten about it. They tried to work with the VA, but how do you reason with a bureaucratic monolith?
Susan worked with me to obtain his DD214, military awards, commendations, character letters, VA disability rating letter, and letters from psychiatrists and providers describing his mental health diagnosis as well as treatment and medications.
I initiated contact with the District Attorney’s office to try to get the warrant removed and the probation discharged, but as the prosecutor would later tell the judge, “Ms. Harrell has her job to do and I have mine.”
I gave the prosecutor the lengthy packet documenting John’s service, awards, disability rating, and severity of his mental health issues. The prosecutor verified that John had not—not—been arrested again during his 13-year absence from Texas. But the prosecutor pointed out that John did not complete any of the probation requirements and was classified as an “absconder.” He said his hands were tied and he didn’t feel good about it.
My client was now between a rock and a hard place. Stay in California with an open warrant and no VA benefits or return to Texas, go to jail, and leave his fate to the judge.
My client chose to return to Texas. So, Susan drove John back and he turned himself at the county jail on a Sunday. They brought what was left of his five different medications. The jail was administering them once a day, though he was supposed to get his anxiety meds four times a day. Still, John was holding it together.
Four days after his return, we held his probation revocation hearing. My client would break under the stress of testifying, so I called Susan to testify. She’s a lovely woman. She’d gone to Goodwill when she got to town to buy an outfit for court. She brought it by the office seeking our approval the day before the hearing. She looked sharp.
It’s important to understand that Bell County is home to Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the U.S. Our soldiers have been serving in armed conflicts since 2001. Rather than engendering sympathy, our judges and prosecutors have become inured to the “PTSD defense.” Sympathy has been replaced by skepticism and frustration. I had to prove to the judge that John wasn’t “playing the PTSD card” as an excuse.
Susan took the stand. She told the court that she and John were adopted into the same family in California but were years apart in age—about 15 years. John was born to a drug-addicted mother whose parental rights had been terminated. She described her brother as a good kid, even a happy kid, who was eager to join the Army. She said that after John got out of the Army he wandered for a while, and they lost touch. But finally, John made his way back to California, and she knew right away he was in trouble. She got him into VA for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. Susan even completed the National Caregiver Veteran Training Program offered by VA so she could better assist John. He’s been living with Susan for 4 years.
She said treatment and medication made a huge difference for John, though he still has outbursts from time to time. She explained to the court that on one occasion family and friends were gathered for a backyard barbecue and something triggered John’s PTSD. He started yelling and turning over tables. They called the police, who took him to the hospital to get help. Susan testified that John has not used drugs or alcohol while he’s been with her, and that he goes to all his VA appointments and takes his meds.
Susan testified through her tears that “the Army broke him.” Susan is an army veteran, too. Susan is very proud of her military career as a cook and her service to her country. But she testified that “the Army broke him.” The packed courtroom sat silently through her testimony.
I simply asked the judge for mercy. A lot to ask. In my remarks to the judge, I couldn’t help commenting—out loud—that California must be a liberal state because when their wounded vets act out, the local police take them to the hospital not jail.
I asked the judge to dismiss the probation revocation and release my client from jail that day. I made the obvious arguments, but of course it had to be said. It benefits no one to keep John in jail for any length of time and would grievously set back his mental health recovery. I gave the same packet to the judge that I’d given to the prosecutor documenting John’s meritorious military service and severe mental health issues.
The judge struggled with his decision He did not want to appear to be rewarding “bad behavior” since there were plenty of other defendants in the courtroom, many of them veterans. After all, my client possessed cocaine then fled the state while on probation. He did do that; he violated the law. John had been dealing with his undiagnosed PTSD by using cocaine. After he stopped using and got the help he deserved and earned through his military service, he turned himself in on the warrant and was prepared to face the consequences.
In the end, the judge did dismiss the probation revocation and dismissed the underlying felony drug charge. John was released from jail that day and did not have a felony drug conviction on his record. Susan drove John back to California to get his VA benefits and care reinstated.
Susan kept hugging me with tears in her eyes before she left the courthouse. John uttered a huge sigh of relief and thanks before they led him out of the courtroom.
While they live on a modest budget, they made a point of sending chocolate and cake to the office as thanks. God knows they needn’t have done it. My associates, assistants, and I sure did appreciate it and the affection that came with it, though.