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Judge cuts 3 years from Colorado Springs vet's sentence, but narrow ruling disappoints advocates

April 5, 2017 Updated: April 6, 2017 at 7:30 am
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An El Paso County judge Wednesday agreed to trim three years from a combat veteran's eight-year prison term in the drunken shooting of an Army friend, which could make him parole-eligible within a year.

But even as relatives of former Army Staff Sgt. Cory Griffin cheered the prospect of an earlier release, others stopped short of declaring victory.

"It sounds like the judge split the baby," said veterans advocate Robert Alvarez, who had hoped for a "bold" statement that might spur change at jails and prisons that Alvarez says fail to provide adequate treatment for inmates who suffered psychological scars in combat.

After comments in court that encouraged Griffin's advocates, El Paso County District Judge Lin Billings-Vela instead found Griffin's treatment was sufficient and cited other factors for cutting his sentence, including Griffin's lack of prior criminal history and his remorse.

"I think she lost her courage," Alvarez said.

Complaints over deficient care for veterans in prisons and jails have fueled a national debate over whether the justice system is equipped to handle the needs of incarcerated veterans and led to a host of court challenges like Griffin's. The Combat Clemency Project, launched by the University of Chicago Law School in 2015, is one of several ongoing efforts to draw attention to petitions by incarcerated military members and their supporters.

Those efforts allege a lack of effective mental health services and say prisons rely on debilitating drugs instead, according to published reports.

Because of Griffin's lack of criminal history and repeated diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, his case also became a flashpoint in a dispute over admissions criteria for El Paso County's Veterans Trauma Court, where prosecutors have veto power over who gets in. Griffin was barred because he used a weapon in his crime, even though he had support from the program administrators and from the state probation department.

The 28-year-old former scout sniper was arrested in November 2014 after a shooting in his Fountain apartment that wounded an Army buddy in the hand. His wife later told authorities Griffin was in a dissociative state, made worse by heavy drinking. The victim, Nathan Dragovich, said Griffin accused him of having an affair with his wife before the attack, and knew what he was doing.

Afterward, Griffin crawled into a closet and got into a fetal position and screamed about the Taliban in a phone call to his mother, relatives say.

Griffin ultimately agreed to plead guilty rather than face a potential 40-year sentence for attempted murder, and Billings-Vela imposed an eight year sentence in May, near the midpoint of the five- to 16 years Griffin had faced under a plea bargain. Prosecutors said Griffin's honorable service record and extensive support network factored into his plea agreement. A further break on his sentence would give him an unfair advantage over defendants without military service, they argued.

In agreeing to revisit her sentence in February, the judge said details of Griffin's treatment would be a "significant factor." .

In her ruling on Wednesday, she cited a letter from operators at the Skyline Correctional Facility in concluding that "Mr. Griffin's needs are being met," noting that he had been treated at a previous facility in Bent County and had learned effective coping strategies for combat stress.

Griffin was "stable and compliant" and found to have "low mental health needs," according to a letter submitted to the court by Warden Angel Medina.

That assessment clashed with accounts from his wife, his treating psychologist and other supporters, who testified at a court hearing that Griffin had deteriorated while in custody, losing progress he made in private treatment while free on bond.

Alvarez said Griffin has downplayed his psychological turmoil while in custody, hoping that being a "good soldier" will keep him out of trouble and speed his release.

"Anybody who's ever dealt with the Department of Corrections just knows they don't have the treatment necessary for veterans," said Alvarez, who works for USJAG, a nonprofit that advocates for combat veterans in the criminal justice system. "I'm a little shocked she backed away. I really think this would have been somewhat of a case-law making decision had she ruled to release him for treatment because that would open the door to other arguments."

Others involved in the fight were more measured in their reactions to the ruling.

"We respect and understand the ruling, but I think every American wants to see the best for their veterans, especially for a person who served so honorably," said Colorado Springs attorney Tim Bussey, who was hired to press for a sentence reduction.

Bussey thanked Billings-Vela for her time and attention, and said it's undeniable that he's "better off today" than yesterday.

Griffin's wife, JenaRae Griffin, said she had held out hopes for probation - and a return to intensive private treatment.

"I really can't be mad," she said. "Three years shaved off - that's huge for me, so I'm pretty happy about it."

Because Griffin was also accused of pointing a pistol at her before the shooting, she was listed as a victim in the case and barred from visiting him in custody.

For that reason, she wasn't present when her mother recently brought their 4½-month-old son Jackson to prison to meet his father for the first time.

Reuniting with his family is part of what keeps her husband going, she said.

"He just soaked Jackson up," she said of their meeting. "He wanted my mom to hold him so he could just stare at him. He was mesmerized. He's all about Jackson right now. That's his thing."

It's unclear when, exactly, Griffin will be eligible for parole or release to a prison alternative. His legal team told family members that he could be eligible for parole within a year, but they were also exploring whether he could be transferred to a work-release program sooner.

Regardless of the timetable, Griffin is unlikely to be granted the leeway to resume treatment under psychologist Miriam Blum, who practices EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing. The approach has won wide accolades for helping veterans recover from trauma.

It's not available in prison, and ComCor is unlikely to clear his schedule to make it happen, Alvarez said.

"He'll do well. He knows how to follow rules," Alvarez said. "I just don't know how supportive ComCor is going to be for him to get treatment and all the other things he needs."

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