The high number of suicides in the military has been in the news recently. In 2011, 301 active-duty military personnel committed suicide. In the same year, another 915 in the services attempted suicide. The Pentagon has called it “an epidemic of military suicides”. Adding to the complications of suicidal acts is the military law that warrants a charge of “self-injury” when a member of the military attempts suicide. But the ruling in a recent case may lead to a change in attitudes.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces recently overturned the conviction of a Marine who had attempted suicide after being accused of theft. He had been told that he would be sent to the brig, but slit his wrists with a razor before he got there. He was prosecuted under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice which lists “self-injury” as a punishable offense.

The attorney for the Marine said that the decision “sends the message that we should not be prosecuting attempted suicide.” But the attorney for the military countered that the case was not about “prosecuting suicide or attempted suicide” but rather “prosecuting an act that was prejudicial to good order and discipline,” quoting the language of the Article. One of the dissenting judges agreed that, while “I question whether punishing either bona fide suicide attempts or suicidal gestures…is wise or fair,” that determination should be made by the President and Congress.

Article 134 also says that conduct that has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute” may also be prosecuted under the Article. “Self-injury” is specifically named as an example of the type of conduct to be prosecuted. Other actions enumerated include examples from indecent language to perjury to wearing unauthorized insignia.

While this case was decided on the narrow facts of the specific offense, the decision may help pave the way for a case to consider redefining what constitutes punishable conduct under the Article. Until that happens, anyone charged under the Code for any of the enumerated offenses should consult with a seasoned defense attorney familiar with the issues.

The Bilecki Law Group is a Hawaii based law firm that handles military law cases throughout the Pacific Rim.