SAN FRANCISCO — The plea was passionate, dramatic and effective: haunted to addiction by memories of a Bosnian mass grave and the shooting of a teen in Honduras, former U.S. Army Capt. Sargent Binkley robbed two Silicon Valley pharmacies for painkillers.
A Santa Clara County jury came back in January 2009 with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity for the first robbery. Because of that verdict, a San Mateo County judge in March approved a plea bargain between Binkley and prosecutors that called for mental health treatment rather than a lengthy prison sentence for the second pharmacy stickup.
"People who fight our wars and serve our country should absolutely get special treatment," said Binkley's attorney Chuck Smith, reprising the closing argument he delivered to Binkley's jury. The jury ignored a prosecutor's argument that the U.S. Military Academy graduate should be held accountable for his criminal behavior.
Leniency for veterans is a legal argument that is increasingly carrying the day in courts across the country. It's also sparking debate over whether such special treatment is fair. Even supporters disagree over which crimes committed by veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe brain injuries and other service-related maladies should qualify for special sentencing.
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In November, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out convicted murderer George Porter's death sentence because his Florida jury wasn't told of the Korean War veteran's combat-induced post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did," said the Supreme Court in its opinion.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said federal judges will be permitted to take into account military service when considering sentence reductions, beginning Nov. 1.
Veterans are increasingly receiving specialized treatment in the legal system, highlighted by the explosive growth of "veterans courts" across the country.
The first specialty court created to deal exclusively with veterans was launched in Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2008. There are now 31 such courts around the country.