TAMPA, Fla. – The attorney for a former Marine who pleaded guilty on Thursday to killing a man while driving drunk in Tampa blamed his client's post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury received while fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Scott Sciple, 38, pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter and DUI with personal injury. In 2010, Sciple plowed head-on into another car and killed the other driver, a 48-year-old father named Pedro Rivera.
Sciple's family and lawyer blamed the crash on his combat injuries and noted that his case spurred the military to acknowledge it should be more thorough in evaluating and treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rivera's wife, Carmen Rodriguez, was also in the car and injured in the crash. She spoke to the media Thursday outside of the courtroom and said she agreed to a plea deal.
"My husband is now dead," Rodriguez said in Spanish through a translator. "There's nothing anyone could do, and so the only thing I could do is to provide relief to his family, to provide relief to the pain they're going through. And that makes me feel like a better person."
After the court proceedings were through, Rodriguez hugged Sciple's mother.
The plea means Sciple will be released Friday to a treatment facility in Virginia; he will be escorted there by a Marine. The judge sentenced him to a year in jail, but he received credit for time served and has already served 363 days. He was also sentenced to 12 years of probation and two years' house arrest.
"This is probably as difficult of a case as I have seen," defense attorney John Fitzgibbons said. "The court proceedings today were very emotional and sad. Mrs. Rodriguez could not have been more compassionate or shown more dignity than she did in this case. Everyone involved in this case is a casualty of war. Capt. Sciple was a normal individual when he volunteered for the Marines shortly after 9/11. He came back a changed man because of his war injuries."
Sciple has been discharged from the Marines with a 100 percent disability rating. He earned three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroism.
"The command investigation that followed this tragedy is in the process of changing the way that every Marine returning to America is evaluated," Fitzgibbons said. "I understand a number of steps have already been implemented to try to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. It's difficult to understand what these men and women go through on these multiple deployments."
Marine Corps investigators who examined Sciple's case wrote an 860-page report with recommendations for top brass.
"This investigation reveals a disturbing vulnerability in the support we provide our combat veterans suffering the invisible wounds of PTSD," wrote Col. John P. Crook of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, in a Sept. 26, 2010 letter. "It is folly to expect a wounded mind to diagnose itself, yet our Marines still depend on an anemic system of self-diagnosis and self-reporting."
The report details several horrific events in Sciple's military career. He witnessed "a bus full of casualties and a sea of blood gushing out," then buried some of the Iraqi civilians — and dug them up when relatives came looking. Sciple was wounded in attacks while on patrol, rode in convoys that were hit by roadside bombs and in June 2009, lost consciousness and bled profusely after a rocket attack in Iraq, leading rescuers to believe he had died.
Sciple's command in Iraq even expressed concern that Sciple was suffering from PTSD. About two weeks after the rocket attack, Sciple was found removing sutures from his arm with his Swiss Army knife. An assessment showed he had "mild deficits" in verbal learning and difficulty with attention.
Two weeks after that, he was given a neuropsychological assessment and declared "cognitively fit for full duty." His superiors then sent him back to a California-based wounded warrior battalion. He was eventually sent to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to a desk assignment. He got into the crash two days after he arrived in Florida.
The early-morning crash happened on Interstate 275; Sciple was headed the wrong way when he collided with Rivera's car. Rivera and his wife were returning home after helping a friend who had broken down on the road.
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