The biggest question about last Sunday’s horrific shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been how the shooter was able to legally buy a gun. In case you missed it, the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, should have been legally disqualified from buying a gun by virtue of pleading guilty in a court-martial to inflicting a horrific beating on his then-wife, Tessa, and his infant stepson. However, the case was never uploaded to the federal database used to conduct background checks on gun buyers.
What most people don’t know is that there was really no defensible reason for Kelley to be on the streets in the first place. He pleaded guilty to charges that carried a maximum of eight years’ confinement and a dishonorable discharge. However, he only received a year in the stockade and a bad-conduct discharge.
Considering that he was charged with brutally beating his wife and cracking his son’s skull, that barely qualifies as a phrase. That became even more apparent when Tessa–now known as Tessa Brennaman–gave her first public interview, in which she discussed the abuse she endured during her brief marriage to Kelley.
Brennaman’s interview is slated to air on “Inside Edition” on Monday. However, a clip aired on Friday’s edition of the CBS Evening News; “Inside Edition” is produced by CBS Television Distribution. Watch here.
Brennaman, then known as Tessa Loge, married Kelley in 2011. She recalled that their marriage was filled with abuse. She recalled that when Kelley found out she’d gotten ticketed for speeding, he put a gun to her head and asked, “Do you want to die? Do you want to die?” She also recalled that on at least one occasion, Kelley threatened to kill her and her entire family.
According to Brennaman, Kelley had “a lot of demons or hatred inside of him.” Those demons exploded in April 2012, when he attacked her and her son. He punched, choked, and kicked her, then pulled her hair. He also pointed a gun at her–once when it was loaded, and once when it was empty. He also attacked his stepson with enough force to crack his skull.
For this, Kelley was initially charged with six offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice–assault on Tessa, aggravated assault on his stepson that could have inflicted “death or grievous bodily harm,” and four counts of willfully discharging a firearm under circumstances that endangered human life. Under the Manual for Courts-Martial, he faced up to 12 years in a military prison and a dishonorable discharge. He pleaded guilty in return for the firearms charges being dropped.
Considering the circumstances, calling what he actually got a lucky break would be being extremely kind to it. It doesn’t look like the ordeal that Tessa and her son had to endure were given proper consideration.
The New York Times offered some more insight into Kelley’s troubled marriage and military career. Jessika Edwards, a staff sergeant in the squadron where Kelley served in the latter part of his Air Force tenure, said that Kelley fought constantly with his wife, and was under near-constant scrutiny from the local child protection agency. Edwards recalled that Kelley was so emotionally unstable that he couldn’t perform his job as a logistics receiving clerk. At the time of the events that led to his court-martial, Kelley was reportedly on the verge of being discharged for poor performance.
Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for domestic violence victims in the military, confirmed what I had long suspected–Kelley’s “sentence” was far too lenient. Christensen was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor at the time of Kelley’s court-martial. In a colossal understatement, he said, “A serious injury to a child is worth more than a year in confinement.” In his experience, he’s seen people get similarly lenient sentences for abusing cough medicine.
It’s hard not to conclude that had the Air Force recognized the nature of Kelley’s demons, it would have handed down a punishment that would have kept him from endangering others. Looking at the facts of the case, anything less than five years would have been a joke, and it wouldn’t have been out of line to hand him the maximum of eight years that he faced upon pleading guilty. But it didn’t. And as a result, 26 people are dead.
There’s little doubt that last week’s shooting reopened some old wounds for Tessa and her son. Hopefully they can continue healing. From what little we know of what they endured in a short time, that will take a lifetime.
(featured image: screenshot courtesy Inside Edition via CBS News)