By now, it is clear not just beyond reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt, that Sunday’s grisly shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas was directly caused by a complete breakdown in the military justice system. The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, should have never been able to legally buy the AR-15 clone he used to carry out his massacre. However, his 2012 court-martial conviction for brutally attacking his wife and son was not properly entered into the national database for conducting criminal background checks for gun buyers.
Had that case been recorded as required, every store where Kelley bought a gun after his bad-conduct discharge would have seen that he had pleaded guilty to beating up his wife and cracking the skull of his infant stepson. Federal law would have thus barred him from buying, owning, or possessing a gun.
In a colossal understatement, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson told CBS News that Wilson had been “a serious problem in the Air Force.” Watch her full interview here.
There’s another serious problem that Wilson, and the other heads of the military departments within the Pentagon, have to address. Kelley’s case reveals beyond any doubt that the armed forces need a major rethink on how they respond to domestic violence in their ranks.
After the attack on his wife and stepson, Kelley was haled before a general court-martial, the highest level of court-martial in the military justice system. As a result, under the Manual for Courts-Martial, he faced a maximum of a dishonorable discharge and eight years in the stockade–three years for the assault on his wife, Tessa, and five years for attacking his son in a manner that could have caused “death or grievous bodily harm.” He pleaded guilty and was sent to the stockade for one year, after which he received a bad-conduct discharge.
Having looked at the facts of the case, I’ve tried to find a good-faith reason for how you can inflict such an attack on your wife and infant son and only get a year in prison–and I can’t find any. You really can’t call that a sentence. Indeed, it barely qualifies as a phrase. It almost feels like whoever decided Kelley’s fate wanted to apologize to him for the inconvenience.
Even if you wanted to spare Tessa the emotional toll of having to testify, what about the need for her to heal, as well as the need for her son to heal? And even if he did plead guilty, what about the need to deter others from treating their families in this way?
Had this been a civilian jurisdiction, a judge who only gave a man a year in jail for inflicting such a brutal attack on his wife and child would be facing a national outcry for his resignation. Frankly, there is no defensible reason for anything less than five years’ confinement and a dishonorable discharged. If I’d been the judge, I would have whacked Kelley with the full eight-year sentence.
Either sentence would have assured Kelley would have been behind bars on Sunday. And he would have been barred on two, and possibly three, counts from getting a gun. Federal law bars people who have been dishonorably discharged from the military from buying a gun. It also bars people who have been convicted of an offense carrying longer than a year in jail from buying a gun. And it certainly looks like the Air Force had him temporarily committed to a mental health facility before trial after he tried to smuggle guns onto his base and threatened his superiors.
Everything we know about this case suggests that the Air Force had a chance to make an example of Kelley–and blew it eight ways to Sunday. When a failure of this magnitude happens, there has to be accountability from the top down. If I were Wilson, I would find out if those responsible for Kelley’s fate were still on duty. Then I would tell them that they need to apologize–while they are resigning from the Air Force. By imposing such a ridiculous “sentence” on Kelley, they brought shame, disgrace, and dishonor to themselves and their uniforms. They also failed Tessa and her son, and put everyone with whom Kelley came in contact after his discharge in undue danger.
It is also long past time for a national conversation on how this country responds to domestic violence. If there wasn’t proof that we needed such a conversation, there is now. When it is even remotely possible for someone to inflict such a horrific attack on his wife and son and only get a year in prison, something is wrong. And it’s time to come together and fix it.
(featured image courtesy FBC Sutherland Springs’ Facebook)