A two-year effort to get a combat veteran into an intensive prison alternative program hit a wall Thursday when an El Paso County judge sentenced him to eight years behind bars in the drunken shooting of an Army friend.
Former Staff Sgt. Cory Griffin, 27, was sentenced one day after El Paso County District Attorney Dan May fueled hopes for a different outcome by agreeing to an 11th-hour visit with Griffin's advocates, who emphasized the soldier's repeated diagnoses of severe post-traumatic stress disorder and outlined what they saw as gaps in the investigation.
May declined to intervene, however, deferring to senior prosecutor Brien Cecil, who earlier accused a psychologist of "drinking the Kool-Aid" in asserting that Griffin suffered from dissociative episodes brought on by bloody tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They say they understand what our veterans go through, but I think this paints the picture that they speak out of both corners of their mouths," said Georg-Andreas Pogany of USJAG, a nonprofit that seeks to assist veterans after crimes triggered by combat stress.
The case involved conflicting accounts of a Nov. 9, 2014, shooting and dueling psychological evaluations from mental health experts.
Griffin's looming prison sentence 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, barring any defendants who use weapons to commit crimes.
Treating psychologist Miriam Blum, a 41-year mental health counselor, testified that Griffin was in a severe dissociative state when he shot fellow soldier Nathan Dragovich in the hand and then crawled into a utility closet, where he lay in a fetal position screaming about the Taliban.
Other supporters noted that Veterans Court administrator Leo Martinez wrote in support of accepting Griffin's case, and that the probation department identified him as a suitable candidate for a treatment-intensive prison alternative.
Fort Carson's top officer, Maj. Gen. Ryan Gonsalves, terminated disciplinary proceedings against Griffin and ordered that he be considered for a medical release from the Army, which was granted in March.
Blum's testimony was answered by that of Dr. Lennart Abel, a Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo psychiatrist who told the court that Griffin might have suffered from a trauma-related blackout, but that it was likely triggered by the shooting, not something he experienced beforehand.
Before imposing sentence, 4th Judicial District Judge Lin Billings-Vela cited Dragovich's request for the maximum penalty. The soldier said Griffin had pointed his weapon at his head, and that he deflected the weapon by batting it away at the last second.
Gangrene could end up claiming his thumb, Dragovich told the court.
Griffin's supporters say forensic evidence does not support Dragovich's claim the shooting happened at point-blank range. The soldier wasn't harmed by muzzle flash or powder burns, and he initially told fellow soldiers that he knew the shooting was an accident, they said. Dragovich later changed his stance, documents show.
They also allege that Fountain police botched the case by failing to videotape their interviews. Prosecutors theorized the case was fueled by alcohol and jealousy, all based on Griffin's alleged suspicion that Dragovich was having an affair with his wife.
The theory is partly based on comments that Griffin's wife made during a frantic 911 call and later retracted, saying she jumped to a conclusion about her husband's motive in the chaotic aftermath of a shooting that left her ears ringing and blood streaked through their apartment.
Calling it a serious assault, Billings-Vela imposed a penalty toward the bottom end of the 5 to 16 years of prison time that Griffin had faced under a March plea agreement to second-degree assault.
A prison sentence was mandatory unless prosecutors agreed to drop two sentence enhancers they appended to the charges.
Prosecutor Tanya Karimi said Griffin's plea deal already took into account the soldier's lack of a criminal history, his decorated service as an Army sniper, the strides he has made under therapy, and a support network that includes a wife he met in the sixth grade.
The prison sentence leaves Griffin's wife, JenaRae, pregnant at a time that her husband is prison-bound. Under Colorado law, Griffin must serve 75 percent of his sentence, nearly double the 40 percent normally served for nonviolent crimes. The Griffins previously lost a child at the age of 3 months to congenital heart failure.
Defense attorney Kent Freudenberg suggested during an interview this week that Griffin pleaded guilty to avoid the prospect of a 40-year sentence, which could have been imposed had he lost at trial on charges of attempted murder coupled with the sentence enhancers.
Had Griffin gone to trial, he would have been barred from wearing his Army dress blues under a judge's order, said Robert Alvarez, also of USJAG.
"They worry it would bias a jury," Alvarez said.