TAMPA — The grieving widow of Pedro Rivera, a 48-year-old father of five, told a judge Thursday that the brain-injured combat Marine who killed her husband by driving drunk needed medical care more than a prison sentence.
"We can't just keep doing things to people who need help," Carmen Rodriguez said.
With her blessing, former Marine Capt. Scott Sciple, 38, survivor of four combat tours, was sent to a psychiatric hospital. He could have gotten 15 years in prison for DUI manslaughter. After sentencing, Sciple's mother embraced the widow, placing her son's silver crucifix necklace around her neck.
Last year, the Marine Corps made an extraordinary admission that it had failed to diagnose and treat Sciple for traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder and never should have sent him to MacDill Air Force Base.
"Had Capt. Sciple been referred and treated in a timely manner," a Marine investigation concluded, "it would have broken the chain of events leading up to his accident and his arrest for DUI manslaughter."
The Marines also admitted failing thousands of other injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two wars loomed sadly over Thursday's sentencing. Weeping and speaking with the help of a Spanish translator, Rodriguez said both her family and Sciple's are casualties. "Something has to be done," she said. "Look at the results: Two families that have pain."
Sciple, who has been jailed for the past year, declined the judge's offer to speak. His attorney, John Fitzgibbons, said speaking was too difficult for Sciple, but he is "incredibly sorry" and appreciates the compassion of Pedro Rivera's family. He's no longer a Marine. Fitzgibbons said he has been discharged with a 100 percent disability rating.
The Marines sent him to Tampa after his treatment in San Diego for a severe arm wound caused by a rocket explosion in Iraq. Despite bizarre incidents in San Diego — including finding himself in Mexico with no memory of how he got there — Sciple was declared fit for duty and given a classified desk assignment at MacDill.
The crash happened within days of his arrival.
Sciple has always said he couldn't remember the Aug. 25, 2010, crash. He told police he could recall going out in the evening to buy Skoal and beer. He remembered getting lost, getting out of the car and trying to orient himself by the moon. He said he couldn't explain how his blood-alcohol level spiked to three times the legal limit, or how he ended up on I-275 near Bearss Avenue, driving north in the southbound lanes.
Rivera and his wife were on a rescue mission that night. Rivera, a mechanic, had helped a friend with an engine fire on I-75. As they returned home at 4 a.m., Rodriguez told her husband, "Doesn't it look like that car is headed this way?"
Recovering from her own injuries, Rodriguez urged a prison sentence for Sciple, regardless of his three Purple Hearts, his post traumatic stress disorder, his memory losses, his 114 medical prescriptions issued in 2009 and 2010.
"I have faith in American justice," she said last year. "Pedro's death cannot be brushed off like that of a dog, killed in the street."
But in court Thursday, the widow said her feelings changed after seeing Sciple's parents, Sam and Lynne, suffer through court hearings. "They're so old," she said. "The pain they're going through is the same pain I'm going through."
She told Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman she preferred medical treatment to a prison sentence.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Lisa Campbell ordered Sciple's transfer to Poplar Springs Psychiatric Hospital in Petersburg, Va., a locked facility that specializes in military-related disorders. He will initially undergo a 90-day evaluation. He will remain in the hospital until the court rules otherwise.
Then Sciple will begin two years of community control and 12 years of probation. "Defendant must continue to receive treatment from a psychiatrist or psychologist during the entire term of his probation," the judge's order said.
Fitzgibbons, Sciple's attorney, said a Marine escort would accompany Sciple to the Virginia hospital this morning.
After Sciple pleaded guilty and was sentenced Thursday, his mother, Lynne, embraced Rodriguez, giving her the silver crucifix. She told Rodriguez that it was her son's fifth crucifix. He had lost three in combat and one in the crash.
"Our heart goes out to her," said Sciple's father, Sam, in tears. "There's nothing we can do but go forward. I just want my son to be the person he was before he went to war. He's a very different person right now."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]