LAKEPORT – An Iraq war veteran will spend another six months in jail after being convicted of felony possession of stolen property.
Derick Hughes, 21, was sentenced to a total of 280 days in jail and felony probation Monday afternoon after lengthy courtroom sentencing deliberations between prosecutor Art Grothe and defense attorney Stephen Carter.
Hughes was charged with felony possession of stolen property after being pulled over in Nice last December. During the stop, a sheriff's deputy discovered two used 10-inch by 12-inch ballistic panels from a military body armor system, a BB gun, a miniature souvenir baseball bat and a quantity of concentrated cannabis.
During the first part of testimony on Friday, Grothe attempted to cast doubt on Hughes' military service and his activities in the Marines while Carter worked to relate Hughes' behavior in Lake County to a psychological condition known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Grothe questioned Hughes about the dates and locations of his service as well as the temperature of the weather in Iraq.
Hughes developed PTSD after an explosion during a promotion ceremony in an Iraq battlefield which took the lives of 10 of his fellow soldiers, Carter said.
While on the stand, Hughes described the promotions location. “It was in the middle of an ops zone, a combat zone,” he said.
That tragic event was dramatic enough to garner the attention of ABC's Good Morning America, which interviewed a number of the survivors, including Hughes.
According to testimony during the sentencing, Hughes was diagnosed with PTSD by a Navy doctor before being discharged from the military.
Subsequently, he received an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge after testing positive for marijuana and methamphetamine in Twentynine Palms shortly after returning from Iraq. During the sentencing, Hughes admitted to using the drugs.
The sole defense witness, aside from Hughes himself, was Dr. Albert Kastl, the clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Carter brought in to evaluate Hughes.
Kastl, an expert witness, concluded that Hughes' behavior and attitude was consistent with that of someone affected by PTSD.
At one point Kastl told the court that Hughes had been “trained not to show weakness,” and that suspicious, defensive behavior was “highly consistent” with PTSD.
During cross examination Kastl explained that instances of PTSD were much higher in Iraq than in previous wars. In Iraq, Kastl said, as many as 20 to 30 percent of the soldiers would suffer from the affects of PTSD while in Vietnam the numbers were much lower, closer to 5 percent.
Active duty troops in Iraq currently number around 160,000, according to press accounts.
Friday's sentencing was cut short by the judge and two fire alarms which emptied the courthouse before either attorney had completed their closing arguments. The sentencing resumed Monday afternoon.
The weekend respite gave Carter sufficient time to accumulate 24 defense exhibits comprised of Hughes' discharge documents, a letter of commendation, a two-page checkout sheet reflecting that all items checked out to Hughes were returned, numerous photographs of Hughes in Iraq and a video copy of the Good Morning America show in which Hughes appeared.
Before getting to the video Judge Richard Martin silently reviewed all the exhibits for several minutes, looking over some items more than once. After he had finished reviewing the multiple exhibits, Carter presented the video and Grothe uttered his objection.
Grothe did not object to any of the exhibits except for the Good Morning America video, which he described as redundant.
During a brief give-and-take with Carter over the tape, Martin questioned Carter about how the tape might boost Hughes' credibility with the court. Carter sought to have Martin play the tape and decide for himself.
Carter argued that since Grothe had suggested on multiple occasions that Hughes was not being truthful, it helped support Hughes' claim of military service in Iraq. “It goes to weight,” Carter said.
Carter ultimately convinced Martin to review the tape before deciding whether to sustain Grothe's objection. Carter then placed a small television on the judge's desk and played the video in full view of the court.
During the first portion of the ABC video, Hughes expressed that losing his fellow soldiers was akin to losing relatives. “It's like losing a family member, that's what we lost,” Hughes said on the tape.
Judge Martin then overruled Grothe's objection and accepted the video into evidence along with the other 23 exhibits.
The two attorneys then proceeded with their closing arguments.
Carter had filed a 17b motion, which is used to request a reduction from felony to misdemeanor. He focused on Hughes' service and need for treatment. He stressed that Hughes, who had fought to establish a right to vote in Iraq, stood to lose his own right to vote in the US if found guilty of a felony.
At one point, Martin noticed two veterans in the audience, one a veteran's representative who would soon testify that Hughes would still be eligible for Veterans Administration benefits even after being OTH discharged.
Richard Hulet, a Vietnam veteran who works for the Employment Development Department as a veterans representative, took the stand.
“He's gonna be eligible for full VA treatment for post traumatic stress,” Hulet said of Hughes.
During his closing, Grothe continued to attempt to poke holes in Hughes' story by picking out conflicting details from a probation report and Kastl's testimony. Grothe told the judge he would not seek prison time.
In the end Martin told the court that he had problems with the inconsistencies in Hughes' account and denied Carter's request for the 17b reduction from felony to misdemeanor.
“This court doesn't hand out 17bs right and left,” he said. “This court is not ready to turn him loose on a 17b.”
Martin then sentenced Hughes to 280 days with credit for 90 days served, bringing his sentence to 190 days. Carter said Hughes will actually serve two-thirds of that sentence.
Martin also allowed for day-for-day credit if Hughes takes part in a residential VA treatment center. That treatment would be in lieu of jail time with the possibility of other types of treatment centers as an option.
After the sentencing, Carter expressed his satisfaction with the verdict and reported that Hughes was taking it in good spirits.
“We're very happy he didn't get a prison sentence,” Carter said. “For a guy who's been through what he has been through this isn't such a big deal.”
Carter will meet with Hughes on Wednesday at the jail to work out a strategy going forward. Hughes could potentially complete his three year probation in one year through good behavior and petitioning the court for a reduced charge.
“A year from now when I expect Derick Hughes will be successfully completing the terms of probation, our plan is to bring a motion for early termination of probation,” Carter said. “There's an open door there, we don't have to wait the full three years.”
Should Hughes successfully complete his probation, “You can bet I'll be at the courthouse,” Carter said, where he'll apply to have Hughes' felony expunged from his record.
E-mail John Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.