Court gives troubled Marine vet another chance

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders In a Tarrant County courtroom last week, I watched the justice system bend in the right direction and show mercy to a young veteran who long has been crying for help.

While displaying a great degree of compassion, along with some no-nonsense admonitions, a prosecutor, judge and pro bono defense attorney made it clear to a former Marine that he was being given another chance -- his last.

I've told the story before of Reynaldo Garcia III, who turned 29 today. The oldest of four children, Rey (as he's known to family and friends) was in the fifth grade when his mother was murdered in 1995 while she telephoned his father from the phone booth of a service station parking lot.

I'd met Rey and his father a few months after the killing, when the family was involved in a program at The Warm Place, a support center for grieving children and families.

When he wasn't accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy, he joined the Marines at 17, with his father's permission, and served two tours in Iraq. But two months before completing his second enlisted term, Rey was discharged "under other than honorable conditions," because he had begun to drink and get into fights.

The next time I saw him after childhood was in a Tarrant County jail, where he was considering pleading guilty to an assault charge in exchange for three years in prison.

Because he had been convicted in a previous aggravated assault case, stemming from a fight with a girlfriend, he was not eligible for parole or the Veterans Court Diversion Program, designed specifically to help vets who get in trouble.

Amid his nightmares, heavy alcohol and drug use and suicidal thoughts, he said, he was begging on the inside for someone to help.

Since then, a new lawyer, Brian Walker (also a vet), worked with the court and prosecutors to have Rey tested for post traumatic stress disorder and to develop a plan that would get him help instead of giving him a long prison term.

With family and friends gathered in state District Judge Robb Catalano's courtroom, after final negotiations between the parties had ended, the judge gave the signal for Rey to be brought from his holding cell.

Christy Jack, chief prosecutor of District Court No. 3, along with the chief of the 432nd District Court, Lloyd Whelchel, had agreed to extend Rey's deferred probation in the first case to 10 years, order him to a drug treatment center in Lubbock County and have the coordinator of the Veterans Court supervise him, even though he technically doesn't qualify for that program.

Before the plea was entered, Rey got one-on-one lectures (primarily through questions), beginning with his attorney, prosecutor Jack and the judge, all emphasizing that what was happening that day was rare, including the fact that two chief prosecutors, both coincidentally from military families, had reviewed his case.

"Everyone in this courtroom is bending over backward to help you," Jack told him as he stood erect in his "always-a-Marine" manner.

The judge made it clear that in most circumstances he probably would not agree to that plea bargain, but it was because of Rey's service to the country that he was being given this chance.

Throughout the questioning, which generally ended with "Do you understand?" Rey politely and firmly answered, "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am."

After completing his drug treatment, he will return to Tarrant County and report to the Veterans Court Diversion Program and began receiving treatment for the PTSD. His lawyer said they're also going to work on getting his Marine discharge upgraded so he would be eligible for benefits.

If he successfully completes probation, Rey will not have a felony on his record. It won't be easy, but he says he can do it -- by going into his "Marine mode."

A lot of people believe he'll succeed.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.

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Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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