Neal Puckett’s sentencing argument lasted about 25 minutes. The argument painted LTC Lakin as naive and obsessed. It centered on a metaphor in which Mr. Jensen was a quack doctor who convinced Lakin he had cancer and needed experimental treatment with dangerous side-effects. But LTC Lakin now understands he doesn’t have cancer and should be given another chance with this new-found understanding.
Mr. Puckett began with a joke I couldn’t quite hear. Then, nodding toward CPT O’Beirne, he said, “That was a really good speech. I enjoyed it.” But he said it must have been written before LTC Lakin gave his unsworn statement because its characterization of what he said was inaccurate.
He asked the members, “Have you ever anyone quite like Dr. Lakin?” Mr. Puckett described LTC Lakin was “kind, compassionate, duty-bound, simple, and extremely patriotic.” He asked how there could be a greater display of patriotism than a willingness to sacrifice a military career to what he believed at the time was the higher cause of the Constitution.
Mr. Puckett also called LTC Lakin “simple” and “facile” before labelling him as “one of the most naive gentlemen you ever met.” He never believed someone would lead him astray because he trusts people. “He loves Soldiers. He is not the average Army lieutenant colonel. He is not the average Army doctor.” “His motives were never to shirk hazardous duty. He’d been on three prior deployments. He’d been to war. It wasn’t about that.”
“Dr. Lakin innocently and naively thought” that disobeying orders “was the only choice he had.” Mr. Puckett told the members that “the Army didn’t fail him. The Chief of Staff didn’t fail him. He had questions and concerns. And it became an obsession with him.” He compared LTC Lakin to someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mr. Puckett then explained that he obsesses over people who don’t board airplanes and “get their butts in the seat” quickly enough. But Dr. Lakin’s obsession was the President’s eligibility. “And it ate away at him.”
Mr. Puckett then launched into his metaphor. Imagine an American named Lakin who is fit, eats well, and exercises every day. He wakes up one day and doesn’t feel well. This continues. Something’s wrong with his constitution. He decides to see a doctor, and someone refers him to a doctor in California. The doctor says he’s not a specialist, but believes that Lakin has a rare form of cancer that’s upsetting his constitution. He says, “I’m not an oncologist, but there’s this treatment. It might have adverse side effects. But it might be your only hope.” That doctor is Dr. Jensen. Lakin then sees a specialist — Dr. Kemkes. Dr. Kemkes says, “You don’t have cancer. There’s nothing wrong with you. Go back to work. Get more sleep. Don’t take the experimental treatment.” But Lakin is upset, because he thinks he has cancer. He wants to kill the cancer; he doesn’t want to die. He has a specialist saying he doesn’t have cancer. But if the specialist is wrong and he doesn’t take the experimental treatment, he might die. So he decides to take the experimental treatment to keep from dying. Mr. Puckett told the members, “You might say, ‘I’m going with the specialist. I’m not going to risk those adverse side effects.” But Lakin was so obsessed with the threat to his constitution. Not only did Dr. Jensen talk to him, but lots of other people did, too, and they took the experimental treatment. He went along because he was so obsessed and so naive.
Mr. Puckett then asked what LTC Lakin really meant when he said he wished he had been advice. That meant, Mr. Puckett argued, that “he wished he’d never met Dr. Jensen — Mr. Jensen.”
He then asked, “What’s different between now and March? He got a new doctor. That doctor educated him about cancer from the molecular level up. He’s convinced now he doesn’t have cancer. He realizes he was wrong — wrong to follow the advice of Dr. Jensen. He would never say to you, ‘If I had it to do over again, I’d do it again.’ He said that when he thought he had cancer.”
Mr. Puckett then asked, “Why would be punish the Army by dismissing him?” He also asked how the actions of “one day” could brand his other 17 years of service as dishonorable. Mr. Puckett proposed an alternative to dismissal or confinement: “Why don’t we send him to deploy, and then deploy again after that? Why not send him to the worst duty assignments?” Mr. Puckett said there were “other options,” the “most obvious” of which was to send Dr. Lakin to jail. He said there was no need to protect either the Army or society by locking LTC Lakin away in jail. Such protection is needed from drug dealers and violent criminals, not from LTC Lakin.
Talking about LTC Lakin’s actions, Mr. Puckett said, “This was crazy. I’ll say it, crazy. He gets it. He understands.” Mr. Puckett then argued that “this gentleman who cares about the Constitution has voted in his last election.” The trial counsel objected. Mr. Puckett continued, “He won’t be able to own a firearm.” Judge Lind then said, “Sustained.” Mr. Puckett then said, “He’ll have a general court-martial conviction on his record for the rest of his life. That’s punishment. Will he ever be a colonel? No.” He urged the members to let the Army decide whether to administratively separate LTC Lakin, perhaps through a BOI or some other way. The trial counsel objected again, but this time the objection was overruled. Mr. Puckett then urged the members to let HRC and the Secretary of the Army decide whether to separate LTC Lakin.
Mr. Puckett continued, “Consider what was going through his wrong-headed mind at the time. He’s back from that place. He saw a mirage. That’s all it was, just a mirage.”
Mr. Puckett then asked the members to “consider his family at Christmas.” He argued that there’s “no need to warehouse him at society’s expense. Don’t send him to jail. That little 3-year-old cherub shouldn’t have to see his father in jail.” Mr. Puckett proposed that the members instead adjudge a written reprimand, “some forfeitures,” and restriction to place of duty. “Make him stay at work. He has a federal conviction.”
Mr. Puckett told the members, “We’re constantly reminded that when you leave the Army, someone else will take your place. When you can’t make a deployment, someone else will take your place.” He then acknowledged that it was “not right” that MAJ Dobson had to move up his deployment, but he said we’ve all known people who had to deploy on short notice — sometimes even shorter than that which MAJ Dobson received.
Mr. Puckett then turned to the looming “You had your chance” comment. “Did he personally disrespect COL Roberts? No. Mr. Jensen did that. He didn’t direct that or authorize that. That was Mr. Jensen.” In light of the government’s failure to rebut that allegation from LTC Lakin’s unsworn statement when the government had the relevant witness available, I assume that’s true, though the way Mr. Puckett argued it seemed to introduce some facts from outside the record. (I don’t believe that LTC Lakin stated that he neither directed nor authorized Mr.Jensen to make that remark, though I have no reason to believe that statement was untrue.)
Mr. Puckett then argued that general deterrence is unnecessary. “This isn’t about sending a message. There’s no need for harsh punishment so others won’t do what he did. Dr. Lakin is unique in his personality, background, approach to this issue, and in his obsession. There are no other Dr. Lakins out there for you to make an example of him for.”
Mr. Puckett then argued that LTC Lakin was really guilty of only one offense. “Missing movement is simply the natural and probable consequence of the real offense. There is only one real offense — he didn’t report to his unit to deploy. That’s what this is really about. He didn’t go to Fort Campbell. Understand it was a misguided obsession that caused him to make this strange, odd, inexplicable to us, decision.”
Mr. Puckett continued to argue against a dismissal and against confinement: “He’s ready to be used as the Army would use him. A good use would not be to warehouse him in a jail. All the time during all this hoopla, he went to work every day.” At that point the trial counsel made a facts-not-in-evidence objection, which the military judge overruled. Mr. Puckett continued, “He could be back at duty at 0730 tomorrow treating patients. Make him work harder. He does have a debt to the Army. Make him work it off. Someone else, the Secretary of the Army, can consider whether he can retire. Make him work it off.”
Mr. Puckett finished with: “Please do not characterize his career as dishonorable. Please do not send him to jail unnecessarily. Merry Christmas.”