TAMPA — Marine Capt. Scott Sciple's manslaughter defense this fall will be "horrible, an eye-opener," his attorney promised Wednesday, an expose of the plight of brain-damaged veterans of a decade of war.
But until then, a judge decided that the 37-year-old Marine who came home from Iraq and Afghanistan with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star is a threat to the public and belongs in jail.
The ramrod-straight, buzz-cut officer was deemed too dangerous to roam MacDill Air Force Base, the home of Central Command. Sciple has remained on the job there since being accused of driving head-on into a car while drunk in April 2010, killing the other driver.
Sciple was getting mental health treatment while at MacDill, but prosecutors learned that he drank enough beer to fall off a bicycle on the base last Friday. Out on $25,500 bond, he had been ordered to avoid alcohol.
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet scolded Sciple's commanding officer for lax supervision.
Sciple's attorney John Fitzgibbons, said the Marine's brain injuries made him incapable of controlling his actions. The judge asked what Sciple was doing at "one of the nation's most important military bases" with access to weapons.
Fitzgibbons pleaded with Sleet to make an allowance for Sciple, who had survived numerous close-range explosions. The September manslaughter trial would reveal that Sciple is "a product of war."
Sleet said he understood the seriousness of brain concussions, that he sustained concussions himself while playing college football. "But I find it hard to believe brain injuries could cause him to get drunk and ride a bike."
Sleet warned the attorney that he will not allow a trial of the Iraq war. "Purple hearts have nothing to do with this case. This isn't about heroics."
The trial will be about the death of Pedro Rivera, 48, who was hit head-on by Sciple's car on Interstate 275 near Bearss Avenue. Investigators said Sciple was driving in the wrong direction. His blood alcohol level was 0.255 percent, about three times the limit at which the state presumes impairment.
Rivera's wife, Carmen, who was in the car and survived, came to court Wednesday to ask Sleet to put Sciple in jail.
Speaking in Spanish, she told Sleet she was left widowed with seven children. She objected that Sciple had gone freely about, even recently taken a trip to California. "I was home crying with my family," she said.
Attorney Fitzgibbons said Sciple was set to start treatment for alcohol dependency at a facility in Maitland. Then he was to undergo treatment for traumatic brain injuries at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Sleet said that the Marine will be afforded whatever treatment he needs in jail.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.