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Victim in DUI-manslaughter case deserved better, and so did the Marine charged with killing him

A DUI-manslaughter trial is about the saddest thing you can sit through.

Usually the victim was someone just driving along trying to get where he was going. The accused often has no record, just that colossally stupid moment when he slid behind the wheel and turned the key. Lives get ruined for nothing, and no number of prison years will make it right.

The DUI-manslaughter case against Scott Sciple, a Marine who saw intense combat but never got the mental help he needed in a warrior culture that discourages weakness, takes that kind of loss and sadness up a notch.

To be clear, it's hard to imagine a more innocent victim than Pedro Rivera, a father, husband and mother's favorite son killed last year. A mechanic, he was headed home after a late-night mercy mission to help a friend on the highway when Sciple came driving the wrong way on I-275. Police said he'd had three times the legal limit.

So it would be easy to dismiss Sciple as a man deserving any punishment a judge could come up with. But his case turns out to be about responsibility, too, to people who serve in our military, live through what we could not imagine and are marked by it.

As the Times' John Barry recently reported, Sciple was a war hero who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, survived four combat tours and was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor. He saw dead children and mass casualties and saved wounded fellow Marines. He kept going back. He was riddled with shrapnel and a rocket blast blew open his arm. And not all his wounds were visible.

He started acting strange, worrying friends, family and colleagues. But he told his father showing weakness could kill a Marine's career.

A Marine Corps report later found he was suffering post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and had "dissociative episodes" in which he didn't remember what happened. But he had never gotten a neurological workup. He was seen as fit for duty and sent to MacDill Air Force Base. Less than 48 hours later, an innocent man was killed.

At his trial, the prosecution will likely talk about Sciple's personal responsibility that night, much of which he says he doesn't remember. His attorney, John Fitzgibbons, plans to ask for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Under the law, he will argue Sciple had a mental infirmity that kept him from knowing what he was doing, or from knowing it was wrong. A not-guilty verdict would put him in treatment instead of prison.

And I would not want to be on that jury, looking into the faces of Rivera's family, and then at the combat veteran at the defense table, a man even the Marines say should have been treated, not sent here.

The Corps' straightforward and unflinchingly inward-looking 860-page report concludes Sciple was "incapable of making fully informed cognitive decisions" and suffered documented memory loss and blackouts. It talks of a flawed system that relies on traumatized combat vets to report on themselves even in a "Marine Corps warrior culture" that stigmatizes it. It talks change.

If any good can come from this, change is it. Change means powerful people in Washington pushing for better rules to evaluate and support the ones we send into battle, to keep this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Victim in DUI-manslaughter case deserved better, and so did the Marine charged with killing him 08/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 9:30pm]
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