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More about vets, crime and Nathan Damigo

March 8, 2010 - 3:58 pm

Something I didn’t mention in my article in this week’s CityBeat about Lance Cpl. Nathan Damigo, an Iraq war vet who got caught up in the criminal justice system, is that for the three days prior to Nathan’s sentencing on Feb. 26, he was was followed by Matt O’Neill, an Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker. O’Neill’s working on a doc, tentatively called Traumatology, which is scheduled to air around Veterans Day and will be about vets struggling with PTSD. The film’s being produced by James Gandolfini. To the left is Matt filming Nathan (whose back is to my camera) giving his brother, Josh, a tattoo (the scene that opens my article).

Some background: In November 2007, Nathan, who was 21 at the time and less than a month back from his second tour in Iraq, was arrested for holding a gun to cab driver Changiz Ezzatyar and robbing him of $43, according to court records. Earlier that night, Nathan had been been drinking heavily and struggling with the anniversary of the death of his friend and bunkmate Lance Cpl. Jeremy Tamburello. Nathan accepted a plea deal from the District Attorney’s office and was sentenced to six years in prison. He’ll get credit for time served and, with good behavior, could be out in four years.

I wasn’t able to talk to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in time for the article’s publication, but I was able to chat with her for a few minutes today. I asked her opinion on Veterans Court—basically, a specialized court for veterans whose crimes can be linked to a combat-related mental illness or traumatic brain injury and who would benefit more from treatment than incarceration. While several counties throughout the U.S. have veterans courts, the majority have limited participation to vets who’ve committed misdemeanors. Those that recognize felony offenses limit them to nonviolent crimes. Based on my research so far, Orange County appears to be the only county with a veterans court that’s potentially open to all-comers. An OC Superior Court spokesperson there told me that there’s no set list of what crimes are allowed and which aren’t allowed; rather, she said, defendants are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Dumanis said she supports the formation of a San Diego County Veterans Court and that a working group including representatives from her office and the public defenders office has been meeting about this. But, she said, she wouldn’t support a model that’s open to defendants who’ve commited a violent crime. “What we would do in making our eligibility determination is to look at other models,” she said. “With anything, it’s better to start out small and take steps slowly.”

Currently there’s no good data on how many Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been convicted of a crime. But, according to The Crime Report (a collaboration between Criminal Justice Journalists and the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice), a Bureau of Justice Statistics report scheduled for release this year “is expected to show that for the first time since the Vietnam War, the majority of veterans now serving prison terms are between the ages of 25 and 34.”

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