MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge granted U.S. citizenship to a decorated Vietnam veteran who stabbed and killed his wife, then made a remarkable turnaround in prison. “No man is beyond redemption,” Judge Denny Chin wrote.
Chin, recently appointed to the 2nd Circuit, was sitting by designation in U.S. District Court.
When he heard of the ruling, Vernon Lawson told Courthouse News in a telephone interview, “I felt that I had everything in the world that I needed. I love this country so dearly. I don’t know anything but this country.”
Lawson’s attorney told Courthouse News that many Vietnam War veterans face situations similar to her client.
Born in Jamaica in 1946, Lawson became a legal permanent resident when he immigrated with his mother at 14, after his parents divorced. For most of the time since then, he has lived in the same apartment in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. He said that he was in that apartment when he heard the news that he would become a citizen.
Lawson dropped out of high school to enlist in the Marines at 18, and served one 13-month tour of combat in Vietnam.
“I liked the spirit of the Marine Corps,” Lawson testified at his hearing. “I liked what they stood for.”
Assigned duty as “an antitank assault man,” Lawson said that he and his unit were pinned down by 50-caliber machineguns for “some days” while trying to protect a rice crop during Operation Harvest Moon.
Court documents show how Lawson described the operation at his naturalization hearing.
“[M]e and a fellow Marine was told to go and bury a Vietcong that was smelling up the place in front of our company, in front of the section,” Lawson said. “And we went out there to bury him, and we lifted him up to put him in the little hole that we had dug, his arms came off in mine, and it was a horrible experience for me that I keep remembering all my life.”
Lawson testified that he was ordered to keep watch over a “dead Vietcong” whose body was put “on display” and burn down thatched homes with flamethrowers on helicopter sweeps. He told the court that it was difficult to keep track of all the friends who died.
“I lost friends in Vietnam,” Lawson testified. “But sometimes when you’re in a war and you lose friends, you don’t you don’t even know when they die. … You don’t know when they died. You hear an explosion and you know someone died, but you don’t see where they actually died because you might be a quarter mile from where it took place.” (Ellipsis in original)
One of those friends, who he had known since basic training, was shot in the head, “apparently accidentally,” by another Marine, court documents state.
Lawson testified that he drank heavily in Vietnam and smoked cheap and readily available opium to take “the edge off.”
In 1966, Lawson returned to the United States, and was honorably discharged from the Marines a year later, with numerous medals and commendations, including the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder more than a decade later, and said in the interview that he still needs constant treatment.
“I have to take medication constantly just to fall asleep,” he told Courthouse News. “That’s the heritage of Vietnam.”
In 1981, he married Vena May Campbell. By 1985, they had separated.
“They were trying to reconcile, however, and in April 1985, Lawson met her so that they could look at a new apartment where they might try to live together again,” Judge Chin wrote. “They started quarreling, and Lawson stabbed her multiple times in the chest and stomach with a knife.”
The night before, Lawson had drunk heavily and smoked marijuana laced with PCP, and he was still under the influence of alcohol and drugs when he killed Campbell. He immediately walked to the police station, where he was arrested.
“But there were mitigating circumstances,” Judge Chin wrote. “As a result of the pressures he endured in thirteen months of combat, he developed drug and alcohol addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder. After he returned from the war, he received little support in dealing with the challenges of readjustment. It was against this background that he lost control in a quarrel with his wife and killed her.”
A jury in 1986 convicted Lawson of first-degree manslaughter, tossing the murder charge because of “extreme emotional disturbance.”
Lawson earned three degrees in prison: a G.E.D., an Associate’s Degree, with honors, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, also with honors. He received treatment for PTSD, drinking and drugs, and became a counselor for inmates.
In October 2000, a year after being paroled, Lawson began working as a substance and alcohol abuse counselor at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center at Bronx Lebanon Hospital. He described at his hearing how patients responded to his experiences.
“I gave an example of my life to patients and what I went through with alcohol and drugs,” Lawson testified. “And it helped a great deal with patients when I showed them what happened in my life with drugs, and what drugs did to my life.”
Judge Chin wrote that Lawson treated “hundreds” of addicts, many of whom were homeless, in group and individual therapy sessions, before he suffered two strokes and retired.
Lawson also volunteered regularly at his church, took food to homeless veterans and tended a neighborhood flower garden, taking over for his mother after she died.
In 2004, Immigration and Customs Enforcement started removal proceedings against him, culminating in a deportation order 4 years later.
“When I was told I would be deported, I felt ashamed,” Lawson said in the interview. “I didn’t know this country would just turn on me like that because I got into trouble. Then all of a sudden, I’m not wanted anymore.”
One of his attorneys, Heather Volik of Sullivan & Cromwell, said that other veterans are in Lawson’s position.
“I think that the legal team led by Matthew Parham has always believed that Mr. Lawson deserves to be a naturalized citizen because of his work as a Vietnam veteran, and we also understood that there are many other Vietnam veterans that have been denied naturalization based on similar situations,” Volik said.
In 2009, Vietnam Veterans Against the War estimated that 3,000 veterans faced deportation nationwide.
Lawson filed an application for naturalization in 2006, which was rejected.
A petition to review the rejection made its way to Judge Chin, who was born in Hong Kong before becoming the first Asian-American circuit court judge outside the 9th Circuit.
On Thursday, Chin blasted the government’s tenacious efforts to send Lawson back to Jamaica.
“Indeed, the Government’s continuing efforts to deport Lawson who is now sixty-five years of age from the country where he has lived for some fifty-one years, and its continuing efforts to deny this highly decorated Vietnam War veteran citizenship in the country for which he so valiantly fought, are mean-spirited at worst and puzzling at best,” Chin wrote. “They betray a desire on the part of the Government to continue punishing Lawson for his actions of so long ago.”
The government argued that a man convicted of manslaughter could not demonstrate “good moral character,” a precondition for naturalization.
Rejecting that, Chin quoted Helen Keller on character and perseverance.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved,” Keller wrote in “Midstream: My Later Life.”
Chin said that Lawson exemplified Keller’s standard.
“Lawson has redeemed himself,” Chin wrote. “Through the way he dealt with his ‘experience of trial and suffering,’ he has shown that he is and has been, since August 4, 2005 and before, of good moral character. His petition is granted.”
Vilok said Lawson will take his oath of citizenship after her firm submits a proposed order.
Lawson told Courthouse News he is still in disbelief, and that he did not expect to be granted citizenship, given the anti-immigrant sentiment in the country today.
“I was shocked out of my mind,” Lawson said. “I’m still shocked, really. I’m still dizzy.”
He said did not want to tell his family until he receives the documents.
“I know it’s there, but when I hold on to it, it’ll be a better feeling.”