STREETSBORO, Ohio — Army Cpl. Joseph Carson came home from Iraq with a Purple Heart.
PTSD came along, too.
And it all changed his life and the lives of his wife and seven children.
The flashbacks. Nightmares. The daily struggle.
And then came the 191 days he spent in the Portage County Jail - facing over 60 years in prison - after cutting his arm while trying to kill himself on Veterans Day.
His wife, Deseray, spent those six-plus months fighting for his release, pleading with prosecutors that her husband needed treatment, not confinement.
Those prosecutors and police saw it differently. They convinced a judge to hold Carson under a $250,000 cash bond, then charged him with eight counts of felonious assault, one count each for Deseray and their children. He was barred from speaking to his children.
“My whole world stops,” Deseray Carson said. “A man who fought for his country, and was hit by a bomb, and has sacrificed so much, physically and mentally. It’s just heartbreaking what’s happened to Joe, our kids and myself. He just sits in jail. And for what?”
They were all home last November when Carson, 36, became enraged over alcohol. He struck his wife and shoved his son during the tirade, according to family and police reports.
But he did not attempt, the family said, to use the knife to harm them. In fact, no one was injured that day except for the Army vet.
In an effort to see how the justice system treats some vets with PTSD, Channel 3 News followed Deseray Carson and her children for the last several months. News crews went to court hearings and a jail visit. They also spent time at the Carson home as Deseray cared for her children, all under 18.
Deseray Carson said the court system ignored her husband’s mental health needs and painted him as a hardened criminal rather than a wounded war hero who struggles with a common disorder. Joseph Carson was shot in the leg while serving during the war in Iraq.
Rather than help the vet, prosecutors brought what Deseray Carson calls an “outrageous” criminal indictment alleging eight crimes that did not happen to her or her children. Prosecutors also ensured his incarceration with a high bond usually reserved for killers and rapists.
Assistant Prosecutor Steve Michniak, who has handled the case from the start, initially agreed to an interview with Channel 3 News, but later canceled and did not reschedule. In a text Monday, he said he could not comment on a pending case.
In jail, Carson received no treatment or counseling for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His only prior conviction was a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence. He’s been in treatment and disabled since 2005.
Since her husband's arrest, Deseray Carson was forced to quit her job to care for their children, ages 3 to 17, and to help her husband.
She and her husband first met at Nordonia High School. They married right after graduating and began a family. It was Joseph Carson’s lifelong dream to join the military.
“The kids…because I have to be strong for them,” she said. “And Joe. He needs help…I’m his biggest advocate...I’ve been with him 20 years now and it’s hard, especially dealing with his mental illness.”
It was one of his kids who called 911 when Joseph Carson cut his arm and threatened to kill them and himself. Police arrived to find Carson in the bathroom with Deseray next to him, trying to help stop the bleeding.
Outside the home, officers spoke among themselves. There was no mention of getting the vet into treatment. They only spoke of “stacking” higher charges to ensure he stayed in jail. Their conversation was captured on an officer’s body camera.
“I’m thinking domestic. We’ll get a warrant for him when he gets released,” an officer said.
“Can you charge with felonious assault because he had the knife?”
“Yeah, I’m just seeing to stack on his [expletive]… see if we can up to a felony.”
“It’s a jump shot but at least it’ll hold him for a few days.”
Streetsboro police did take him to University Hospitals Portage Medical Center emergency room with the expectation of his Carson being mentally evaluated and potentially admitted. For reasons unclear, Carson was released shortly after his wounds were stitched. He went directly to jail, where he stayed for months.
Police Chief Darin Powers said his officers were only trying to protect Carson’s family and that they were not trying to artificially inflate the charges. He said it was up to prosecutors, not police, to determine what charges are appropriate.
However, Powers did say that felonious assault was proper based on Carson threatening to kill his family.
Asked if Carson attempted to use the knife against his family, the chief responded, “No, it was just a threat, which still falls under the felonious assault” statute.
Carson is represented by the county’s public defender’s office. His appointed attorney could not comment.
However, several area defense attorneys who reviewed the facts of the case at the request of Channel 3 News disagreed with Powers’ interpretation of the law.
Ohio’s felonious assault statute requires a person to knowingly cause or attempt to cause serious physical harm with a deadly weapon.
In Carson’s case, his family said he did not use the knife to attack them. Powers said Carson had the knife during a single confrontation with one of his sons. Again, the son was not harmed, reports and body cam audio show.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, police only questioned the family once and it came during a high-emotionally hour after the suicide attempt. The chief said no follow-up interviews were conducted by officers.
Powers would not comment on the eight felonious assault counts. He said that was a decision of prosecutors and a county grand jury.
“We don’t tell them how to charge the charges,” he said. “[Prosecutors] do it. They’re the ones that have to prosecute it.”
Dr. Edgardo Padin, who recently retired from the VA as its chief of psychology, said PTSD among vets is common. And placing a patient in jail is counter intuitive. As many as 20 percent of Iraqi war vets came home with PTSD. And nationally, 20 vets a day commit suicide.
“The longer it lasts, the longer it goes untreated, the more it becomes part of their everyday behavior and every day way of thinking. And if you reinforce that by putting them in jail, then that becomes a part of their everyday behavior and everyday way of thinking,” he said.
But court hearings came and went. Prosecutors ignored the family’s wishes. Even the prosecutor’s victim advocate, assigned to help crime victims through the court process, ignored Deseray and her sons, choosing at multiple hearings to sit in a different row of chairs inside the courtroom and not speak to the family.
“All the advocate said to me when we met was that I needed to divorce Joe. I can’t do that. He needs help, not a divorce,” Deseray Carson said.
Carson’s oldest son, Hayden, helps Deseray with the younger siblings. As birthdays and holidays passed, reminders stayed inside the house. Joseph Carson’s Christmas packages remained unopened. Handmade signs offer hope.
“It’s been really hard without him here,” Hayden said. “Mentally, it's been hard for the other kids. I’ve had to help Mom do stuff that he would typically do. I want my dad home as soon as possible, whether it's home or a mental hospital. I want what’s best for him, not being held in a cell for something he didn’t do.”
Outside the Portage County Courthouse are flags and monuments praising military veterans. Inside, however, there are no special programs for vets who wind up in the legal systems. Court officials say they don’t have enough cases involving vets to warrant the specialty veteran courts that have sprouted all throughout Ohio with the urging of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.
“The legal system has to be part of the support system that helps these vets into recovery from PTSD,” Dr. Padin said.
While Carson’s case was pending, he received no mental health treatment, he said.
Instead, he was ordered to undergo two evaluations before Judge Becky Doherty agreed to lower his $500,000 bond to a signature bond. His release after 191 days finally allowed Carson to get treatment for his PTSD at the VA in Cleveland.
“Finally,” Deseray said. “Finally, he will get some help. My only hope is that the court system sees what happened to us and works to see that it doesn’t happen to any other family. This was wrong. This was unnecessary.”
For Joseph Carson, he said jail offered him no help, no counseling and no treatment. Now at the VA, he said he is beginning to understand his PTSD and how to cope.
“I believed the law was [initially] called to get me the help that was needed and then I was just thrown in jail and handed charges that don’t make sense,” he said.
“I think the system needs to understand what we go through. The things that we did, the things that we saw, it changes your mind's chemistry. Seeing a corpse is one thing, but having to make one is a whole other thing to deal with.”
Carson is expected to remain at the VA for the next several weeks. The eight counts of felonious assault are still pending. A hearing is set for June 12.
In the meantime, the Carson family has set up a GoFundMe account called 'Justice For Joe Carson.' Click here to donate.
WATCH | See both parts of "The Investigator" Tom Meyer's report on "Failing Corporal Carson" below: