Gunman got light penalty for abusing wife and child
WASHINGTON – Almost five years ago, a military court dropped gun charges against Airman 1st Class Devin Kelley — who gunned down more than two dozen people in a Texas church Sunday — and gave him a one- year sentence for attacking his wife and her 1- year- old child.
His sentence was “very light,” said Don Christensen, the Air Force’s former top prosecutor, whose office oversaw the Kelley case. “Very light, but sadly not unusually light. I’ve done a lot of shaken- baby cases, and they almost always come in around a year of confinement.”
Beyond the one- year sentence, the Air Force failed to put the conviction in the federal background check database, which in turn allowed Kelley to buy the AR- 15 he used Sunday to kill 25 people, including a pregnant woman whose unborn child also died, and wound 20 at his mother- inlaw’s church.
The military court considered allegations that Kelley pointed loaded and unloaded guns at his wife. He admitted he struck his infant stepson with force that could have killed, and he choked and kicked his wife, documents show.
The court dropped the gun charges against Kelley in exchange for a oneyear sentence for “domestic violence” for throttling his wife and child.
“In 2012, this member was properly charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by a panel of qualified Air Force members for assaulting his wife and minor stepson,” Gen. Robin Rand, who was the top officer who signed off on the conviction, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “His prosecution was in accordance with the principles of our legal system and based on the evidence gathered and our ability to convict.”
Christensen said the verdict in a civilian court probably would have been more harsh, but it is difficult to make direct comparisons because of differences in state laws and facts in cases.
He said accused troops often get the benefit of the doubt by a court made up of fellow servicemembers.
The military justice system is illequipped to handle domestic violence cases, Christensen said. Lowerlevel commanders can decide which abuse cases are sent for courts- martial, and they usually know the accused but not the victim.
Troops accused of domestic abuse “often lay the groundwork by complaining to their first sergeant, ‘ My wife’s crazy.’ So when the wife finally does come forward, his superiors are ready to disbelieve her,” Christensen said. “The belief is that she’s just out to get him. She’s just out to destroy his career.”
Afraid of their abusers and often dependent on them for support, the women often retract their accusations, Christensen said. There has been a push to handle such cases through counseling rather than demanding that serious domestic abuse cases be handled by courts.
Some troops feel that domestic problems should be kept within families, said Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military.
“There are still too many in the military who view this as an issue between a man and his wife or a parent and his child,” Christensen said. “We also have those who worry that if they give the guy a punitive discharge, it could hurt his family because it would limit his ability to make money.”
Kelley was given a bad- conduct discharge, which is less punitive than a dishonorable discharge.
He was busted to E- 1, the lowest rank in the Air Force.
The Air Force acknowledged Monday that Kelley’s conviction should have been reported to federal authorities. That would have barred him from buying the weapons legally. It also announced it had launched an investigation to determine why that information was not transmitted to federal authorities.
People stop Wednesday at a memorial near the Sutherland Springs shooting in Texas.
A military court sentenced Devin Kelley to a single year for threatening his wife with a loaded gun and attacking her 1- year- old.