Veterans Court offers opportunity to rebuild

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Dwayne Cherry was close to graduating cum laude from Michigan State University with a degree in political science and pre-law when the 9/11 attacks occurred on American soil.

He expressed his grief by sending President George W. Bush an e-mail several days later, saying he, too, was deeply shocked by this attack and wished Bush luck in binding the nation’s wounds and finding those responsible.

But he also did something to prove his citizenship when he joined the military soon after graduating. His five years in the Army serving as a counter-intelligence agent with a tour in Afghanistan earned him a total of 14 achievement medals and commendations. When he was discharged honorably, he worked at basically the same job for private companies, even returning to Afghanistan.

Later, Cherry married, had a lovely daughter, and was a person others admired. But he was secretly suffering in silence and paying a deadly price for what he saw in combat. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In January 2012, it got to be too much, and Cherry took his life. He was 31 years old.

His mother, Debbie Cherry, was a secretary for Genesee County Probate Judge Jennie Barkey, and she told the judge many stories of other military members suffering with PTSD. 

Barkey formed a Veterans Treatment Court. In January 2013, the State Court Administrator’s Office approved it and Genesee County Chief Circuit Judge Richard Yuille signed it into existence.

The Veterans Court in Genesee County was dedicated in honor of Dwayne Cherry. During the dedication ceremony, Barkey said through Debbie Cherry’s grief “she has taught me about the many, many, many members of our military past and present who also suffer from this affliction.”

“Today is the day we try to stop it from happening,” Barkey said. “This program is designed not to enable, but to put the individuals in a position to help themselves by giving them no other option but to do so.”

The Veterans Court in Genesee was modeled after the first known such court, in Buffalo, N.Y. There are several others across Michigan, including the Veterans Treatment Court in Ann Arbor, which is presided over by Judge Chris Easthope.

The Vets Court is based on 10 key components to use alcohol and drug treatment and mental health services within the justice system. It focuses on a non-adversarial approach where prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges monitor those convicted of misdemeanor or felonies within a strict program where rehabilitation is emphasized.

Barkey said some veterans who have committed a crime are allowed to plead guilty and sign a contract to enter Veterans Court for a one-year period. They are given a strict individualized program, and deal with a mentor, who is also a military person, preferably from the same branch. If they are successful, the underlying conviction is dismissed. If they are kicked out of the program, the person returns to their original court and judge for sometimes harsh sentencing, often at the top of the guidelines.

“Every individual that participates in this program has a mentor because one thing I’ve learned is that vets talk to vets,” Barkey said.

The Veterans Court is supported by the Veterans Affairs offices in Saginaw and Ann Arbor, and every morning, Barkey gets a list of veterans who are in the Genesee County Jail. Those inmates then are interviewed by VA officials to determine if they qualify for the program. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton also has embraced the program by serving as a gatekeeper for the veterans who have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or non-violent felonies.

But not all veterans who commit a crime are eligible for the Veterans Court. 

“It has to be a crime that is a direct result of a disability they developed as a result of their service,” Barkey said. “And the vast majority of these (honorably discharged) people have never previously had a crime, but their problems start after they get out of service.”

The problems stem not only from physical injuries they may have suffered, but also the mental trauma they have experienced.

“I read the reports, and I see what they saw in combat, and it gets to me too,” she said.

Barkey said these vets have seen friends killed and maimed, and then must re-enter civilian life with little more than a “thank you” and an edict to now “get on with your life.”

“Well, the problem is, they just can’t get on with life after going through that,” Barkey said. 

Once admitted to the Veterans Court, participants sign a contract after pleading guilty and enter a yearlong program with goals, a rehab plan, and frequent meetings with their mentors.

So far, 15 people, including one female, have been admitted to Veterans Court. 

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