Updated: January 12, 2011 at 12:00 am
Fort Carson’s top general and the local district attorney vowed this week to fix communication breakdowns that caused Fort Carson to deploy soldiers with pending felony cases.
A Gazette investigation Sunday described four cases involving Fort Carson soldiers accused of serious violent crimes in Colorado Springs who were scheduled to go to trial, but instead went to war, despite protests by prosecutors. Judges, defense attorneys, a bail bondsman and a spokesman for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s office all said they disagreed with the practice, but felt they had no power to keep soldiers from deploying.
Army regulations allow colonels in command of Army brigades to deploy troops, even with pending felonies, and the Constitution gives supremacy to federal law. Initially, spokesmen for brigades that deployed these soldiers told The Gazette they were aware of the charges, but deployed the troops anyway because they were critical to the mission.
But on Tuesday, Gen. David Perkins, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which includes most of Fort Carson’s 25,600 active-duty soldiers, said this goes against his policy to always cooperate with the district attorney’s office.
In a phone interview from near Tikrit, Iraq, where he is deployed, Perkins said Fort Carson does all it can to work closely with local police and prosecutors. Army lawyers discuss each case with prosecutors to make sure troops deploy only with prosecutors’ consent and return for important court dates, even though Army regulations do not require it.
“If we weren’t taking this seriously, if we did not take our special authority as sacred, we would not go to such extreme measures to have such thorough coordination processes,” Perkins said.
Most of the time the system works, he said, noting that of an estimated eight soldiers currently awaiting felony trials in the 4th Infantry’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, only two deployed.
But, he said, the massive scale of deploying soldiers to two wars (9,000 Fort Carson troops currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, 47,000 since the start of the conflicts there) means some soldiers have slipped through the cracks.
This week, Perkins said, he will start requiring the commanding general at Fort Carson to review each decision to deploy soldiers with pending felony cases. The current commander is Gen. James Doty. Perkins will retake command when he returns from Iraq later this year.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Perkins said. “So this new policy is another look to make sure the right decision is being made and the coordination is being done.”
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced support for the policy change. “I trust that Fort Carson’s leadership understands the importance of coordinating with local authorities,” Udall said in a statement. “And I will work closely with them to ensure that such coordination occurs.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and whose 5th Congressional District includes Fort Carson, said in a statement that he hopes any changes will be “addressed in a swift and thorough manner.”
Perkins emphasized that Fort Carson’s new policies will be effective only if the district attorney’s office alerts the Army when it has an issue. In the cases of the soldiers identified by The Gazette, he said, he was never notified of a complaint.
Dan May, 4th Judicial District Attorney, acknowledged systemic communication problems in his office.
When interviewed earlier by The Gazette, the prosecutor in charge of military relations did not know of any soldiers who had deployed with pending felony cases. In subsequent interviews, two deputy district attorneys said they had never been formally instructed on what to do if soldiers with upcoming trials deploy. Often, they said, they had to make case-by-case decisions, not knowing their office’s policy.
“Both we and Fort Carson had procedures in place so this wouldn’t happen, and they did not work. Clearly there is a breakdown in communication,” May said.
Sometimes, he said, junior prosecutors were unsure whom to notify in their office when soldiers were about to deploy. Other times, even experienced prosecutors were confused by the bureaucracy at Fort Carson.
“It’s such a huge base, if a case goes to the wrong guy, gets on the wrong desk, is filed in the wrong place, the right people never see it,” said May.
Beginning this week, the district attorney’s office will standardize the chain of communication, spanning courtroom prosecutors to Fort Carson legal authorities, May said, adding “It will be in written form and in training manuals so all of our people know what to do.”
Fourth Judicial District Chief Judge Kirk Samelson applauded the proposed changes.
“I’m glad the Army and others have recognized this is a problem and are working on it,” he said, adding that prosecutors working with the Army to reach plea deals or reschedule is “the best solution” as long as victims have proper input.
Both May and Perkins said the changes in policy do not mean Fort Carson will stop deploying soldiers with pending felony cases entirely. Perkins said the practice is spelled out in an Army regulation that he has little control over, but, he added, the 4th Infantry Division would try to deploy soldiers only when civilian authorities agree.
A soldier whose trial is imminent would likely stay in town, Perkins said. But if a trial is months away, he said, it is often better to send a soldier to war and return him in time for court.
“We’ve found the best way to keep control of them is to deploy them with the unit,” Perkins said. “Having them just sit in the barracks at Fort Carson is not doing the justice system any good, the taxpayer any good, and the Army any good. How do we assure we comply with Army regulations, serve the larger mission, and be good stewards to the rule of law? We always try to think of that.”
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