Churchill: Treatment of veteran sends the wrong message
On Monday morning, Scott Gilligan accepted a plea deal and it wasn’t a generous one. Without a change of heart by District Attorney David Soares, the military veteran is headed to prison for at least six months.
“I’ve got to man up,” a tearful Gilligan told me outside an Albany County courtroom. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
He’s a 48-year-old from Cohoes who was viciously attacked years ago while serving in the Navy in Puerto Rico. Turns out, he has post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Gilligan only received that diagnosis after his life fell apart two years ago.
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When he lost his factory job, Gilligan lost access to prescriptions for depression and anxiety. He self-medicated and slid into addiction. He drank in the early morning and late at night, he says, and smoked crack in between.
On Jan. 22, 2016, Gilligan hit bottom when he broke into a friend’s house on Lark Street in Cohoes and stole a television, two iPads and a laptop.
His arrest was the jolt Gilligan needed to change his life.
He’s been sober since, attending at least seven Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly. His two sons, who were estranged from their father when he was addicted, have moved back into his house.
He’s worked hard and made real progress.
Given how Gilligan turned his life around, and given that his difficulties stem from voluntary military service, the veteran would seem to be a good candidate for an offer that would keep him out of prison.
But Soares’ office has refused to give Gilligan that consideration. The DA has insisted on prison time.
I don’t know, because Soares’ office has declined to comment. So I’ll raise the same questions I asked on Sunday.
What’s the point of sending Gilligan to prison? What good does it do?
And don’t veterans deserve special consideration from the justice system, especially when their crimes can be linked to their military experience?
If we’re going to claim that we respect veterans and appreciate their service, aren’t we obligated to cut them some slack when that service messes up their lives?
I think so. Soares doesn’t, apparently.
When I met last week with Gilligan and his attorney, Michael Feit, they were planning on taking his case to a non-jury trial. That was a difficult strategy, because Gilligan has never denied he committed the crime. His guilt was not in doubt.
Yet Feit intended to argue, essentially, that a drug-addled Gilligan was not in his right mind when he broke into the house, and that he did so only because his life had been threatened by crack dealers who demanded he commit the crime to pay his tab.
The judge presiding over the case, William Carter, a former state trooper, has said he does not believe Gilligan belongs in prison.
But in court on Monday, Carter signaled that he would struggle to find Gilligan innocent, given his confession, and stressed that a guilty verdict for second-degree burglary would mean a mandatory-minimum of 3.5 years in prison.
Gilligan briefly considered a jury trial before concluding it would be too risky. So he accepted the plea deal offered by Soares 2 to 7 years in prison, but with eligibility for Shock incarceration, a grueling boot-camp-style program.
Gilligan could be released in six months if he successfully completes the program. At the moment, that’s his best-case scenario.
But Gilligan and Feit are hoping Soares might still be willing to negotiate a new agreement that would keep the veteran out of prison. Gilligan is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 27.
Feit described himself as disheartened by Monday’s outcome, and noted that the DA’s office offered Gilligan the same plea deal immediately after he was charged.
That means that all of Gilligan’s work since, his 17 months of sobriety, did nothing to influence the deal he was offered.
So here’s another question for Soares: What message does that send to other defendants whose crimes result from addiction?
After Sunday’s column, many of you wrote to ask what you could do to help Gilligan. My answer: Write to the DA at David.Soares@AlbanyCounty.com and respectfully ask him to reconsider his stance.
There’s little else to do. Soares holds the cards.
Outside the courtroom on Monday, I asked Gilligan how he’ll spend the eight weeks until he’s sentenced.
He said nothing would change. He’ll keep working at Saratoga National Cemetery, where he digs and maintains the graves of veterans. He’ll keep trying to be a model to other former soldiers struggling with PTSD and addiction.
“I’m going to continue to work every day,” he said. “I’m going to stay sober.”
Gilligan planned to attend yet another AA meeting on Monday night.