United States v. PFC David Lawrence

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PFC David W. Lawrence is an American soldier from Indiana.  He is the son of Brett and Wendy Lawrence.  David is 20 years old.  He is accused of premeditated murder for the alleged shooting of Mullah Mohebullah on Oct. 17, 2010 while guarding him in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.  Mullah Mohebullah was a senior Taliban commander and had been captured by U.S. forces the day before his death. Mohebullah’s death was announced by an angry Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Oct. 19, 2010.  Formal charges were filed against PFC Lawrence by the U.S. Army on the same day.

Only weeks before the killing of Mohebullah, David was flown to a Combat Stress Clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan because he had repeatedly expressed severe mental distress to his leadership.  He spent five days at the Combat Stress Clinic before being returned to his remote outpost.  After being prescribed two psychotropic medications (Trazodone and Zoloft) he was returned to duty with pills in hand.  There were no instructions for David to be monitored or observed after he was prescribed two narcotic medications with a known history of dangerous interaction.  In fact, when David was returned to duty, he was placed on permanent guard duty and received less supervision than he had before he sought treatment for his deteriorating mental condition.   

On January 20, 2011, a team of Army forensic psychiatrists issued a formal opinion that at the time of the alleged offense, David suffered from severe schizophrenia as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The team of Army psychiatric experts, formally known in the military as a Sanity Board, also determined that as a result of the severe nature of David’s mental illnesses, he was “unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the alleged criminal misconduct.”  Although the medical conclusions of the Sanity Board are tantamount to a finding of not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility, the criminal charges against David have not been withdrawn.  Rather, on January 31, 2011, the Lawrence family was officially notified that despite the Army’s medical determination that David was not mentally responsible for the killing of Mohebullah, David would still be prosecuted for the alleged premeditated murder of Mullah Mohebullah at a general court-martial. (Read the Army’s Expert Psychiatric Determinations)

The prosecution of PFC David Lawrence is not without political implication.  President Barack Obama traveled to Afghanistan on Dec. 3, 2010 to meet with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.  One of the reported purposes of President Obama’s visit was to ease tensions caused by Mohebullah’s killing.  Additionally, despite two formal delay requests, the U.S. Army forced David and his attorneys to participate in a preliminary hearing held on Nov. 29 and 30, 2010.  David’s lawyers argued in two separate delay requests that the hearing (known in the military as an Article 32 Investigation) should have been postponed until the Sanity Board determinations in David’s case had been made.  The military officer responsible for convening the investigation denied both delay requests after being advised to do so . . . by David’s prosecutors.  Not surprisingly, at the end of the two-day hearing, the investigating officer (a junior military lawyer who works in the same office as the prosecuting attorneys and who is supervised by the same military lawyer who supervises the prosecuting attorneys) erroneously concluded that there were “NO grounds to believe that the accused [David] was not mentally responsible” for Mullah Mohebullah’s death.  Of course, when the Sanity Board results were finally released in January of 2011, they revealed that the Army’s team of forensic psychiatric experts was convinced to a reasonable medical certainty that David’s mental illnesses were not only severe, but so severe that he was not mentally responsible for the charged offense.

Though the Army could (and should) withdraw the charges against David and facilitate the medical assistance that he needs, the prosecution of PFC David Lawrence continues.  The Army alleges that it is unpersuaded by its own medical experts.  David’s general court-martial on the charge of first degree murder is scheduled for June 6, 2011 at Fort Carson, Colorado.

Thank you for your interest in this case.  The continuing prosecution of PFC David Lawrence is an important matter in the on-going evolution of military justice.  Firstly, David’s case appears to be the first instance in the history of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that a military Sanity Board has determined that an accused service member was not mentally responsible for an alleged homicide.  By extension, this also appears to be the first military homicide case where a Sanity Board determination of not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility has been ignored by military prosecutors who insist on putting David and his family through the emotional and financial distress of a general court-martial.

Secondly, the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity is an affirmative defense which completely shifts the burden of proof at trial to PFC Lawrence and his attorneys.  In a case where the Army’s own medical experts have already unanimously determined that PFC Lawrence was not mentally responsible for his alleged misconduct, PFC Lawrence will not be considered innocent until proven guilty at his court-martial.  Rather, once the issue of lack of mental responsibility is raised at his court-martial, PFC Lawrence will be required to prove that he lacked mental responsibility for his alleged misconduct by clear and convincing evidence . . . to a military jury (panel).

Here are three additional facts that you should know about David’s upcoming general court-martial:

1.  A unanimous decision of the jury (panel) is not required in military criminal cases.  A two-third majority of the jury (panel) is enough to convict a service member in any branch of the U.S. military of any offense, including pre-meditated murder.

2.  The Army general at Fort Carson who decided to send David’s case forward to a general court-martial after the Army’s expert psychiatrists determined that David was not mentally responsible for his misconduct, will be the same Army general who hand-picks David’s military jury (panel).

3.  The Army general who forwarded David’s case to a general court-martial did so on the advice of his legal advisor known in the military as a Staff Judge Advocate.  This same legal advisor will be the same person who recommends to the Army general exactly which Soldiers he (the general) should select for David’s jury (panel).  This same legal advisor supervises the chief prosecutor in the case of United States v. Lawrence and is also the supervisor of the Article 32 Investigating Officer who concluded in his report that there are “No grounds to believe PFC Lawrence was not mentally responsible for his alleged misconduct.”

Again, thank you for your interest in this case.  If you are disturbed by the facts of this case, please consider assisting the Lawrence family.  PFC David Lawrence is on trial for his life: literally.  The minimum sentence for the offense of which David is charged is life in prison.  The financial burdens of David’s case are monumental and far more than the Lawrence family can bear alone.