Top Military Court Leaves Door Open For Attempted Suicide Convictions

When Marine private Lazzaric Caldwell attempted suicide by slitting his own wrists while stationed in Okinawa, he faced criminal charges under a military code provision that punishes “self-injury.” Suffering from diagnosed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and facing several other convictions, Caldwell pleaded guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail in addition to a bad-conduct discharge. On Monday, the highest military court overturned Caldwell’s conviction on narrow grounds by a vote of 3–2, but it left the door open for other charges of “intentional self-injury without intent to avoid service.” MClatchy Newspapers reports:

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. The two dissenters in the 3–2 decision issued Monday believe that could be the better course.

“While I question whether punishing either bona fide suicide attempts or suicidal gestures (under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) is wise or fair, that is a determination to be made by the president and Congress, and not this court,” Judge Margaret A. Ryan wrote for the dissent. […]

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. […]


In its decision Monday, the court’s majority concluded that the set of facts in Caldwell’s particular case “does not establish that his conduct was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, or of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

“We need not address the more general and specified question as to whether and when a bona fide suicide attempt would satisfy the elements of (a Uniform Code of Military Justice) offense,” Chief Judge James E. Baker of the military appeals court wrote.

The military has faced a suicide and mental illness epidemic in recent years, and lawmakers have introduced bills to improve mental health assessments, but not to alter the self-injury provision. The provision could be modified either through an act of Congress, or by the Pentagon or the White House removing self-injury from the list of enumerated actions under Article 134, and a Defense Department committee is now reviewing the provision. Caldwell’s bad-conduct discharge made him ineligible for certain veteran’s benefits, and Caldwell said last February he was getting no mental health treatment.